Tales from the underside of SIFF

The view from the boiler room.

IF YOU PERCEIVE the Seattle International Film Festival as an oasis of glamour in our desert of drab, you probably don't work for it. Because behind that celluloid exterior lie a million decidedly nondescript tasks that have to be undertaken if the festival is to go off.

This includes, of course, raising money: grant-writing, seeking corporate sponsors, and increasing membership—the last of which is of particular concern to Warren Etheredge, director of membership and development at Cinema Seattle. "Over 132,000 people attended the festival last year; out of that, less than 1 percent were members of Cinema Seattle. That's a very bad percentage," mused Etheredge during an interview in the organization's cramped, transitional offices. "A lot of people don't get the connection that Cinema Seattle is the umbrella organization that produces and organizes SIFF and also does all these other programs—the Women in Cinema festival, as well as year-round stuff like the Screenwriters' Salon, the Filmmakers' Forum, Talk Cinema, and CineCafe." Hence, Etheredge is constantly concocting new exciting perks to keep members on board.

He also arranges cross-promotional events with various consulates—a gambit that carries its share of risks. During last year's festival, in an effort to publicize a film, a filmmaker sent the SIFF publicity department a baseball cap sporting a Mexican caricature on the front. A publicist showed Etheredge the cap, which they both found astonishingly offensive. "Now, everyone here knows that I am a money whore to some extent, and will do anything for a buck," Etheredge chuckles, "so we both thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny if we came up with something to do with this hat?'" Etheredge told the powers that be that the Mexican consulate would pay Cinema Seattle $1,000 if staff members would wear the hats at screenings of Mexican films to promote Mexican culture.

It is a measure of the degree of desperation among fund raisers that Etheredge was taken seriously. "Nobody disbelieved me. Some people refused to wear them; I said, 'I'm sorry, you're going to have to.' 'We're not going to the screenings then.' And I said, 'OK, fine, don't go to the screenings.' But other people, including Darryl [Macdonald, Cinema Seattle's executive director], realized a buck is a buck—I don't mean that in a bad way—and everybody said OK, go ahead. I'd walk around with the hat and say, 'You're ready to wear the hat, aren't you? You're ready to wear the hat?' Everybody was shocked by it, but they played along."

Eventually, though, it came time to deliver the "buck." Macdonald, going over financial reports, noticed that there was no payment from the Mexican consul. "What happened to that $1,000 from the Mexican consulate," he asked Etheredge, "for wearing the hats?" Etheredge owned up to the hoax, and got an object lesson in the limits of humor among people forced to spend their working lives begging for money. "He turned very, very red," Etheredge recalls, "and I could see this flash across his face, he was really, really angry. He didn't say anything for like 45 seconds, and he finally said, 'All right. We're not getting the $1,000. Please don't do that again.'"

THERE ARE DAYS when scrounging up volunteers—donated labor being no less indispensable than donated money, with volunteers doing everything from ushering to proofreading copy to escorting guests—seems just as hard. Last year, the festival used almost 500 volunteers (they are highly prized); this year, since the number of films has increased, the number of volunteers needed will increase as well. "I am amazed at the number of people who are willing to do these things for free movies," marveled volunteer coordinator Misty Mc-Knight. "That's basically what they do it for—every two hours somebody works with us equals a movie ticket."

Escorting guests—surprise, surprise—is much sought after. "A lot of people who volunteer with us want to be filmmakers themselves," McKnight says. "We get a lot of writers, actors, producers, who want to work the festival because they love movies, first of all, but also for the chance to see or meet someone that may make a difference in their lives. It's always hard to convince people that when they're driving a filmmaker to the airport, it's not a good time to bounce all six of their scripts off of them. Or if a guest is in town for only two days, it's probably not likely that you're going to take them skiing. I've had volunteers corner guests and say, 'No, you really must come to my aunt's house in Maine, you'd love it,' and when I hear these things going on I have to pull them aside and say, 'You know, you really can't do that.' If they're understanding, that's fine, and if they're not, I have to let them go. Because the first job is making sure that the festival runs—but then we need to keep our guests happy."

Volunteers come in handy in all departments. "We'll get press materials that show up here in German, and we have no idea what it's for or what it's saying," says Laura Bobovsky, director of publicity and promotions. "We had a memo come through the other day in Spanish and we had to use our elementary Spanish skills to try to decipher what they needed and who to get back to and to try to get it in English. . . . I just hope that when the films show up they have English subtitles." Bobovsky was pleased that this year's volunteers included visiting Europeans, whose language skills have smoothed over some of these difficulties.

Other problems are not so easily solved: "Everybody wants their film press-screened," sighed Bobovsky, "but a lot of the independent filmmakers—who've been sitting back, waiting for this chance to screen it in a festival—are waiting for the go-ahead to take the print to the lab because they're very tight on money. So literally, the labs are going crazy with prints right now, with people running in there, trying to get the turnaround, to get them to us."

And, of course, there's the job of getting those guests here in the first place. You'd think that coming to Seattle in spring to be worshiped by rabid film fans would tempt anyone, but there are holdouts. "We really want Martin Scorsese to come out," rhapsodizes Kathleen McInnis, one of the festival's programmers. "One year I promised him I would part the Sound like they parted the Red Sea, and one year I promised him I would cook him an Italian meal every day he was here, and since I'm Irish Catholic, if I wasn't good enough I would get an Italian. This year, I can't remember what I promised, but I spelled his name wrong in the letter—Scorcese instead of Scorsese. I was mortified—I've been dealing with him for three years and now I choose to spell his name wrong. I sent off an immediate return letter saying, 'I am humbled, I have nothing I can say, I am at your feet. What can I do? Do you want me to stop trying to get you to come out here?' And his assistant replied, 'Oh, no. He doesn't want you to stop. He wants you to keep trying, but it's not going to happen this year.' Every year he says no, but every year he says no in a much kinder way."

 
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