For 10 days, Palm Springs is the movie capital of the world

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A small article in the Jan. 10, 1990, Los Angeles Times heralded the opening of the first Palm Springs International Film Festival, founded by then-mayor and former pop star Sonny Bono.

“The mayor’s first event is a modest beginning, with no world premieres, no film market and few stars scheduled to attend,” stated the article. “But the event does boast a wide range of international pictures including the opening night feature ‘Cinema Paradiso.’ ”

That Italian drama directed by Giuseppe Tornatore won the festival’s first Audience Award and went on to win the foreign-language film Oscar a few months later. But none of the stars invited to the event — Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas — bothered to show up.


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From that humble beginning, the Palm Springs event has grown into one of the world’s most popular — about 135,000 people attended last year, most from outside the area — and prestigious, especially as a showcase for international cinema. The festival essentially takes over the town for 10 days, with films on 15 screens in Palm Springs and the surrounding Coachella Valley.

As for the “few stars,” the 25th festival, which kicks off Jan. 3 and runs through Jan. 12, features some of this award season’s brightest lights, including Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Bruce Dern and director Steve McQueen, who are all being feted at the festival’s awards gala on Jan. 4.

The original festival was born out of Bono’s desire to “jump start the tourist season in Palm Springs. Every year right after New Year’s, the town would essentially get quieter,” noted Darryl Macdonald, the festival’s original director of programming and current director. “So he wanted an event in early January that might keep people over from the holiday season and drive new people here from outside of town. I don’t know how many other things he may have considered, but he hit upon the idea of the film festival.”

Over the years the festival has grown in stature, one that has something for cineastes, casual filmgoers and those who simply want to flee cold winters (Canadians make up a sizable festival contingent). This year’s version features 187 films from 60 countries, including 77 premieres. The 2014 lineup includes 45 of the foreign-language film submissions, including all nine titles that made the academy’s shortlist.

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The festival combines elements of Sundance (specialized films, in this case foreign language), Toronto (aimed at filmgoers, not industry types) and Cannes (an international flavor and a resort town). For another, it is a rare chance to showcase foreign-language films in the U.S., where the audience for them has dwindled.

The festival draws loyal fans, such as retirees Nat and Sara Kessler from St. Louis who winter in Palm Springs. They have attended all but one festival.

“The festival is the highlight of the winter trip to Palm Springs,” said Sara Kessler, 86. “It is the thing that keeps us going back. We particularly love foreign films.”

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, there are special screenings and events, including “Deja View: Past PSIFF Favorites,” which features films that have won the Audience Award and gone on to win the foreign-language Oscar. Also showing will be first films at PSIFF whose directors went on to major careers — Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.”

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Macdonald has watched the festival grow to the third largest in the country. He was director of programming for the first four years, left and then returned a decade ago. Macdonald had founded and was running the Seattle International Film Festival when he joined the young upstart festival.


Initially, Macdonald said, Bono wanted to showcase major studios’ new films. “He was quickly advised that just was not a possibility for a couple of reasons,” Macdonald said. One of them being that “major studio festival-quality movies that are released in January are few and far between.”

The first years had a homegrown feeling — or at least as homegrown as a festival thought up by Bono could be. Though the galas now take place in the Palm Springs Convention Center, they were more intimate affairs in those salad years.

“Sonny had a party at his house for Sophia Loren,” festival chairman Harold Matzner recalled. “Jimmy Stewart came to my house for the third year. We had about 60 people.”

A global affair

Because the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place just a few weeks after Palm Springs, was celebrating American indie cinema, it was decided to give the festival a more international flavor.

“Darryl, who obviously had been around festivals for some time at that stage, was the one who suggested in the early days that this very much become international film festival,” said artistic director Helen du Toit, who was with the festival in the early years and returned in 2004. “We have just built on that over the years.”


The first festival, said Macdonald, featured films from Italy, France, the U.K., New Zealand and Eastern Europe.

Though it’s generally difficult to start a film festival, Macdonald said, Palm Springs didn’t have as many of the usual growing pains because of its proximity to Los Angeles, the warm winter weather and the resort’s historical reputation as the playground for stars such as Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals.

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And then there was Bono, the former pop superstar who came to fame with then-wife Cher as Sonny and Cher in the 1960s. Bono was able to round up sponsors for the festival, from banks to airlines to Matzner, who has headed up the gala since he became chairman in 2000.

Matzner was close friends with Bono, who died in a skiing accident in 1998. “We played tennis together on a regular basis,” said Matzner, who owns Spencer’s Restaurant and the Palm Springs Tennis Club. “The first year he managed to get $25,000 out of me to help with his newborn film festival,” said Matzner, who is also chairman of the board of the Palm Springs International Film Society.

The gala too played a part in the festival’s growth. About 2,100 people will attend the sold-out Jan. 4 event at the Palm Springs Convention Center.


“Many of the studios and publicists seem to feel that the gala kicks off the Oscar season,” said Du Toit. “It’s partly because we are first up in the year and the level of the stars that we have,” she said. “The honorees we have selected [over the years] have been very strong in terms of nominees and winners.”

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The awards gala and the festival are part of the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society, which has member screenings and education programming throughout the year. Money is raised for the festival through the awards gala, which has revenues of about $2.3 million, and its sponsors Cartier, Mercedes-Benz and “Entertainment Tonight.” Festival sponsors include the city of Palm Springs, Wells Fargo, Wintec, Windermere Real Estate, Bank of America, Guthy-Renker and Diageo.

The festival did plateau for a while in the late 1990s after Macdonald left. During that period there was an explosion of new festivals across the country. “It may well have been the competition,” said Macdonald about the festival’s leveling off in terms of attendance and film selections. “A festival does lose a bit of its mojo when it goes through a shift in key personnel.”

But then Matzner took over the reins. “He rescued the festival and brought Darryl back on,” Du Toit said.

The constant through the years has been steadfast fans like the Kesslers, drawn back to the desert and the films every year like homing pigeons.


During the festival’s 10-day run, “we will maybe see 40 films,” Nat Kessler said.

“We also leave if we don’t like some of them,” his wife added.