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What did you do before running a film festival?
I went to acting school in Sydney and then I started travelling. I started off in Thailand and just kept on going, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and up into Eastern Europe. When I got to New York I started acting again, did a play off Broadway and I wrote a screenplay because I had no money and it was so fu**ing cold living in Brooklyn. I had this idea about horse racing - there was a ring-in in Australia that I knew the ins and outs to and I wrote this screenplay for all the actors in this play because we all got on well.
It was something to do because I was broke but I sent a couple of synopses off before I went back to Aussie but two days before I left an agency read it, I got on the plane and the agency loved it. They called me back saying they wanted to represent me so I came back and then I started to work out the situation in New York.
Well there's a lot of sitting about and talking, people saying we can get him and her but it's all about the timing
.I don't know where the fu** it comes from, Wall Street or something but it was the fact of not doing it, know what I mean? (laughter) Everyone was finding a reason for not moving forward! Anyway I then had the idea for a festival
When did that come in?
Well I acted in an NYU graduation piece and I really liked the energy of the students, they were all directors but they'd muck in on other people's films as boom ops, sound guys and they were all so into it. They were getting up at five in the morning and the people who were waiting to direct their films showed just as much enthusiasm on other people's work. I love that energy. When I came back I went to their graduation ceremony, I noticed that there were no studio people there and no one who was going to change these kids' lives. Mum and Dad were there and I was there, friends were there but I was thinking, 'Why the fu** are they spending four years in this film school that I knew about in Australia?!' I mean Scorsese went to this fu**ing place. I wanted to phone Mickey Mouse and get someone down there to say, at the very least, 'we really appreciate what you're doing,' even if they didn't! (laughs).
I wondered what would happen if we raised a feature film, raised the camera, raised it all and held an event for the people of New York City. Invite everyone who's never been to a fu**ing film festival and tell them it's free
everyone but the studios! (laughter) Invite 25,000 people but don't invite one studio, then they'll sit down and say, 'how come we're not there?' (laughs out loud) It came from a joke basically and we had no money but we ended up raising a prize very quickly.
I wrote to Fuji Film and a bunch of other people and asked them for 54,000ft of film.
Yeah it's about a 5:1 ratio. We knew we could do a dialogue driven film, like a Sex, Lies and Videotape in about four different venues - it's what these filmmakers are good at - it really keeps to that tight budget and the script's got to be right. But Christ, at the time we were getting films out like Air Force One with the president hanging out of a plane with one hand at 33,000ft. We were getting those films where we were getting attacked by Martians and I thought, 'we can do without that.' (laughs) It wasn't about them going out to make some big hit, it was just to let them make their first feature so they could make another.
Fuji gave it to me in a second and then Panavision heard about it. Such a great company and they've got such a great line of thinking, the vice president of New York said something so smart that I knew no one would ever go past them. He basically said that the filmmaker that we found would be shooting their feature film, no matter how long it takes, on a Panavision camera. 'Once you put them opposite me, Panavision will have them for life, whoever you bring in will have a Panavision truck behind them in three or four years.' Smart company that will back that filmmaker to the hilt.
Anyway, I couldn't put a finger on the size of the prize money, some were saying it was $300,000, some saying $400,000, I didn't really care. The problem was that we really weren't getting a lot of help from the New York press, we had no money so we thought about other ways of advertising. We thought about calling it 'New York's call to Irish filmmakers' and we started getting half page articles in the Irish Times, then 'New York's call to English', 'New York's call to French' and so on. They were writing about this prize and we ended up with a filmic Olympiad.
In the first year when the film came from Yugoslavia or somewhere, we had about 330 entries but the majority were international. New York worked outside New York and the filmmakers ended up being marketed in their own countries with this sort of line, 'Harry Bloggs was picked out over x amount of filmmakers from Australia and he's being shipped over to New York to represent his country in the festival." We were getting a lot of print in a lot of different countries but New York still didn't know what was happening! (laughs) It turned into a film Olympiad through a lack of money and it now has a very strong, if there is such a thing for a festival, business model.
You had no experience did you though?
No, but it's more about getting off your arse and doing it. Hell we still fu** up but you have to in order to find success.
Who judges the fest?
We had four in the first year, no one of note but one had won a Pulitzer prize, I forget his name. In the second year we moved to Union Square which took it upscale, we were in Mulberry Street in Little Italy and had some trouble there. On the day of the festival, all those bad things you hear about Little Italy and New York, they all happened and it wasn't good. Certain people, not my decision, suggested we take it to Union Square so we were opened by a city official who was one step down from Giuliani. Susan Sarandon judged with Roger Corman, Eric Stoltz and a lot of names, which is very good.