In the fall of 1997, the Hollywood Film Festival was born in controversy.
No sooner had Carlos de Abreu, its flamboyant founder, author and entrepreneur, announced plans to hold his festival that October than he found himself deflecting criticism that he was brazenly attempting to steal the limelight from the more prestigious American Film Institute’s Los Angeles International Film Festival, opening only a week later.
Rather than ruffle more feathers, De Abreu pushed up the festival the following year to August, where it remained until this year.
While it still has a long way to go to ever rival Cannes, Sundance or Toronto in the pantheon of film festivals, the Hollywood Film Festival has not only managed to survive some bumps along the road, but it has also attracted top stars and film executives.
Mark Rydell, one of the festival’s founding members, credits the studios’ insatiable appetite for publicity and De Abreu’s determination for overcoming many hurdles in the festival’s six short years.
“There’s no avoiding that there is an edge of promotion in all of this,” Rydell said with a soft chuckle. “That’s part of it. But as long as its heart is in the right place, as long as the festival continues to encourage young filmmakers and foreign filmmakers ... that is the pulse of the Hollywood Film Festival. That is what gives it merit.”
Rydell, who directed “On Golden Pond,” “For the Boys” and the TV movie “James Dean,” calls De Abreu a “very determined promoter.”
“I have to hand it to Carlos,” he added. “Everybody was against him at the start, and he managed to survive.”
In 1997, few people in the industry were predicting that the festival would be around long.
To make matters worse, the festival that year became the subject of embarrassing publicity when the sponsor of a dinner honoring the festival reportedly paid one of L.A.'s top restaurants, L’Orangerie, with a check for $35,006 only to have it bounce.
The restaurant sued the sponsor, Marie-Jacelyn Rousseau of Mustang Films, a French company with an L.A. office, along with De Abreu and the festival, in Los Angeles Superior Court. De Abreu and the festival were later dropped from the suit when it was determined that they had no role in making the arrangements for the dinner.
“We were sued, we had nothing to do with it, and therefore, me and the festival were dropped from the suit,” he recalled. “I had nothing to do with this. It’s old news.”
The main criticism of the festival in the intervening years was that it had trouble attracting quality films that would boost its image among competing festivals. It is still struggling to achieve this, but along the way, it has managed to attract major studios, which have embraced the festival as a publicity tool.
Tonight, the festival will kick off at the ArcLight theaters in Hollywood with the world premiere of DreamWorks’ “The Ring,” a horror thriller starring Naomi Watts as a newspaper reporter who probes the case of four teenagers who met with mysterious deaths exactly one week after watching a weird video. Not coincidentally, the festival is bestowing its “Hollywood Breakthrough Acting Award” on the English-born actress while also honoring DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg with the first “Tex Avery Animation Award,” given to an individual or group that has nurtured and advanced the art form of animation.
The centerpiece of this year’s festival will be the screening Thursday at the ArcLight of the comedy “My Wife Maurice,” by French director Jean-Marie Poire, who is scheduled to participate in a question-and-answer session.
The festival will close Sunday night at the ArcLight with a screening of Paramount Pictures’ “Narc,” which stars Ray Liotta and Jason Patric in the story of a former narcotics officer who is lured back to investigate the murder of a policeman. Festival officials said Tom Cruise, one of the film’s producers, has committed to attending.
On Monday night, about 1,200 guests are expected at the festival’s closing black-tie awards banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. In addition to Watts and Katzenberg, the festival will honor actress Jodie Foster, directors Martin Scorsese and McG, screenwriter Robert Towne, producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher, and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, to name a few.
Organizers say that celebrities who have already committed to attend include Halle Berry, Drew Barrymore, Danny DeVito, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Farrell, Lucy Liu, Garry Marshall, Matthew McConaughey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Spielberg, Billy Crystal, Benicio Del Toro and Elizabeth Taylor.
The festival is sponsored by Yahoo Movies, Hollywood Video, the European Union Commission and Hollywood’s two trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. The money for the festival comes from sponsorships as well as revenues generated from ticket sales and passes. Organizers predict that more than 25,000 people will attend this year’s festival.
De Abreu, 48, disclosed that Tom Hanks has been named actor of the year for “Road to Perdition,” Jennifer Aniston actress of the year for “The Good Girl,” and “Minority Report” was named film of the year. To select the winners, the festival first asks 35 producers, industry executives and agents to suggest six nominees in each category. The names and movies with the most votes are placed on Web sites run by “Entertainment Tonight,” Yahoo Movies and Hollywood Video, where the public can vote for the winners.
Although he knows many key players in Hollywood, De Abreu is not an industry insider.
Exiled from Mozambique after colonial rule in that Portuguese colony was overthrown in a military coup in the mid-1970s, De Abreu fled to South Africa and then to Portugal. He later deserted the Portuguese air force and went to Brazil before landing in the U.S. in 1977. From there, he became a marketing executive with Cartier jewelers, married Janice Pennington, a model who displays prizes on Bob Barker’s popular TV game show, “The Price Is Right,” co-wrote with his wife a book about his life and wrote another book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood: How to Sell Your Idea, Story, Book, Screenplay, Manuscript.”
In 1997, he discovered that no one had thought of naming a film festival after the industry’s hometown, so he contacted the state of California and registered the rights to what he believed was a marketable brand name: Hollywood Film Festival. Indeed, he has managed a host of Web sites geared to the Hollywood brand.
De Abreu likes to boast that his festival “bridges the gap between established Hollywood and the global creative community.”
In years past, the festival relied on the Paramount studio in Hollywood to screen some of its films, but because of heightened security stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this year’s screenings are being held at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Industry panels will be held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Tickets for each screening are available for $8, and a festival package allowing entry to all screenings, parties, seminars and the closing gala costs $695.
In recent years, De Abreu has added a humanitarian dimension to the festival. Last year, for example, the festival honored 1996 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Jose Ramos-Horta for his work on behalf of the oppressed people of East Timor. This year, the festival will play host to a humanitarian symposium, chaired by Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her work toward the banning and clearing of land mines.
One of De Abreu’s long-range visions is to swing a TV deal for his closing-night gala, not unlike the Golden Globes on NBC, which is hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.
“I don’t want the Hollywood Film Festival to be known as just another little film festival in town,” he says. “I want it to be known as an international film festival--that whatever we do here is boosted around the world.”