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Tom Hall, Director of the Sarasota Film Festival

Tom Hall, Sarasota Film Festival Director- The Interview!

| Sande Caplin |

Sitting down with Tom Hall, Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) Director, is like sitting down wrist deep in buttered popcorn.  As the film credits open you clairvoyantly know, “this is going to be good!”…and it was.

“At 7am the alarm goes off, my five year old smacks it off and doesn’t wake up his grandma.  School starts at 8:40, they get up at 8:30, she rolls out of bed (she got in at 2 am from the airport), she’s exhausted.  She looks at the clock and it’s like 8:30?!  The kids are still asleep.  And my son’s like, ‘yeah, I don’t think we’re making it to school today.’  She’s like, ‘you’re making it’.”  Spending $5,000 a month in child care, Tom Hall and his wife are fortunate to be able to call “mom” with their hectic professional schedules.

Q- You reside in Brooklyn, NY with your wife and two sons, but during the festival season you commute back and forth.  That has to be difficult.  Tell me what a typical day in Tom’s life looks like?
A- “Monday morning up at five, getting a car to get to the airport by five-thirty.  Flight’s at seven-thirty, land at ten.  Run to the desk.  Meet, meet, meet, work, work work.  Thursday at five-thirty catch the flight back to New York.  Friday, work from home.  Saturday and Sunday, work from home.”  The weekends are also when the kids have all their activities, that’s why I go home on the weekends, they’re at an age I can’t be away from them for too long.

Festival season starts for Tom during September, right after Labor Day.  That’s when submissions open and he and his team (Ina Pira and Caley Fagerstrom) start watching films that are relevant for the Spring, probably watching 1,500 movies from September to February including shorts.  

The SFF gets their movies two different ways: “We go after stuff we like which is a big part of our program, us seeing films and inviting them to come.  The other part, is people send us unsolicited movies which we screen as a group.  We have a screening committee in Sarasota and one in New York City.  Everything gets watched twice.”

Those movies with really good scores filter up, until eventually it filters all the way up to Tom Hall or Ina Pira.  If one of them likes it, the other views it, and then they make a decision.

Q- What is the one film you first saw that changed everything for you; that made you realize “this is something (an industry) I have to be a part of!”
A- My first actual memory is a movie, which is going to the theater to see Alice in Wonderland with my dad when I was three.  On the way home, the Everly Brothers, Wake Up Little Susie, was playing on the radio.  My mom’s name is Susan and my dad always sang that to her.  I just remember us driving away, singing, after the movie.

“…I can remember where I was when I saw a movie.  If you show me a clip from a film, I could tell you where I was sitting in the theater and what it smelled like.  I have this weird memory for movies that I don’t have for faces or names or other parts of my life.  I have a cinematic memory.”

Q- Did you see, When Harry Met Sally in the theater; where were you during the orgasm scene?
A- Hilariously, I was with my parents.  I was a teenager.  My mom and step-dad loved that movie.  And I do remember that part.

Q– And did you want to “have what she was having?”
A– I did not.  I wanted to sink down into my seat and get the hell out of there as fast as I could.

My grandmother took me to Fatal Attraction, another terrible experience.  Grandma, my step-dad’s mother, is ninety one, living in Miami, and she has a reputation as having a “jokey” sense of humor.  She took my mom and brother to Basic Instinct.

Forty-three, born in 1970, Tom is of the VCR generation.  He grew up three blocks from a video store, had a bike, and his own video card.  His parents were world class bridge players, traveling the country for free, competing in international bridge tournaments.  While they were busy playing cards, Tom would be watching a lot of movies he probably shouldn’t have been.  

In high school, Tom rented the film Paris, Texas.  A 1984 film drama film directed by Wim Wenders and starring Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski.  Performance driven, no action; a type of film like no other he’d seen.  After watching, sixteen year old Tom was overwhelmed and turned on to a whole new world of movies.

College in ’89 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, had a great local cinema scene.  While studying, Tom experienced the “Sundance explosion” during those years.  “It was a great time to fall in love with film.”

After college, Tom went to Washington, D.C., where he was a Project Manager on Al Gore Reinventing Government Project for the Department of Education.  “We were the team that put student financial aid applications on the internet. Our project was building the backend data switching so that colleges, students, the Dept. of Ed could all use one form and have it all be one account like a student passport.”

Two years, in January 1997, Tom went to dinner at an education conference with the head of financial aid at NYU, who had also been working on the project.  Sitting next to the man’s wife at dinner, she brought up a movie Tom had seen.  During their interlude on films, she couldn’t remember certain actors performances, or their names, or exact film titles, but Tom Hall did.  Foreseeably, she concluded he knew a lot about film.  “You should come work for me”, was her unexpected proposal.  The “wife”, was President of Bravo/ The Independent Film Channel.

A single man in those days, Tom was hired and moved to New York in June as the Director of New Media for Bravo, The Independent Film Channel (1997-2000).

Later, Tom went back to work for the “husband,” NYU’s head of financial aid, who was starting a private online company to finance international education.  Trying to create international style student funding for students coming to the United States to study because, here, there is so much debt.  Figuring out how to finance and develop packages for foreign students coming to America, working with foreign governments, and putting this plan together was part of Tom’s duties.  We did it because, “there was a need.”  Then 9/11 happened.

All of the hijackers from September 11 were on student visas.  Tom Hall remembers working in the Empire State building that day, looking out the window.  Running to the train, Tom was on the last D train back into Brooklyn, stuck on the Manhattan Bridge, when the Towers came down.

The company changed very dramatically after 9/11.  They shutdown the student visa program for six to nine months so they could sort it out and eventually deciding for revenue and other reasons to switch to more of a low interest loans program. Uninterested in being a loan officer, Tom was more passionate about creating computer systems for students that would be helpful in their lives, not a bank/ lender situation.

Tom left and went to work at the Hamptons International Film Festival (2002-2003) where their Industry Office was in trouble.  While there, he met a friend who was leaving her job as Programmer at The Nantucket Film Festival in Nantucket, MA (2002-2005) and told him he should apply.  Which he did and still works there every once in awhile.

The Sarasota Film Festival, The Hamptons International Film Festival, and The Nantucket Film Festival shared the same publicist, so when an opening and a need for Tom Hall arose, he applied, got it, and has been here the last ten years.

Still programming here and there and helping out festivals when he can, Tom also advises on the GOTHAM Independent Film Awards as Nominating and Voting Juror for Documentaries (2008-2009, 2011-2012) as well as the Cinema Eye Awards for Non-Fiction Film (2008-present), and member of other industry related committees.

Q– In 2011, your title change to “Director,” but it was in 2008 that you took on more duties related to the management of the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF).  Are there any changes festival goers will notice?
A– “I hope none, but there are some things that changed dramatically which are behind the scenes financially; we got a lot tighter, we cut the budget in half.”   

In the April, 2008, the festival was funded 90% by real-estate companies as cash sponsors.  Then in the fall of 2008, that market crashed, while the festival carried a significant deficit forward.  The Board made a switch, deciding never to replace the Executive Director who left in 2008 and still haven’t, operating without one to this day.  The Board, Managing Director, and Tom all share the responsibility of an Executive Director.  Collaboratively fund raising, doing over site management, and budgeting.

“No one’s getting rich working here.”  Everyone took a pay cut, Tom Hall took a 30% pay cut to stay.  Support him, support our Sarasota Film Festival because it’s valuable.  Tom believes it’s a great platform for film / filmmaking and he really wants to continue to have the opportunity to show films and bring filmmakers here.  “Saving it was a big deal: the Board saved the day on the festival.”

The parties and venues may have changed since the 2007 festival, but to the public little has.  “There’s still 250 movies, we’re still at the Regal, there’s still lines, there’s still tickets, there’s still parties…they’re still getting the same experience they always did.”

Q– How would you describe the 16th annual Sarasota Film Festival to someone who’s never had an opportunity to attend?
A– “It’s for them.  The main thing about the festival is that it’s for the community.”  
There are two tiers of film festivals in the country:  the Sundance, Tribeca, South By Southwest’s (SXSW) of the world.  Big, huge, and when you go to Utah for Sundance, no one you meet is from there.  Everyone leaves town during the festival, renting their homes out for $15,000 a week to festival attendees from New York or LA.  Sundance is “tourist event” and Tom loves them, but he knows “it’s not for them; it’s not for the people of Utah.  It’s for everybody else.”

“Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) is for Sarasota.  We want the community to be engaged and involved; I don’t want people to leave when it comes, I want to make sure they’re here participating.”  

The SFF is never going to be like Sundance, that isn’t their goal.  “Our goal is not to become a ‘get out of town’ festival.”  Doing a good deal of tourism and bringing in people has been a beneficial aspect of the festival, and by keeping costs low, matinee tickets for $10, and discount packages, the festival has made the film festival accessible to us all.

Q– If you were interviewing yourself, what would be the question you’d ask?
A– “I guess I would ask myself about what value film has?  I think that’s a really important question.”  
Curators are programmers, in Tom’s case, curators are middlemen in-between the audience and the artist.  The world’s changing and people are going direct to their audience now, they don’t really need a lot of middlemen – like studios.  

The ability to make a film now is so easy.  People are getting a camera and doing it themselves, putting it on YouTube, putting it in theaters by yourself now; you don’t need a distributer anymore.  “The middlemen are less relevant, but more needed now in terms of curation.  People have learned to trust us, so what we show, what we put in the program, becomes something that they trust.  It’s becoming a ‘trust’ business.”

“People are becoming more isolated in society.  They’re online, in the comments section, being anonymous and an asshole to everybody.  Or they are at home watching movies by themselves, not getting out of the house as much.  Or they’re in their car, driving everywhere, not talking to anybody.  It is really hard to do community building…People are now parts of these ‘virtual’ communities and they’re becoming further and further removed from the real community.  They also, I think, are less empathetic and continuing to be less empathetic because they are not dealing with real people in a real way, in their life as often.  What I think movies can do is when you get in a room with a bunch of people in the dark, and you’ll start feeling things for ninety minutes in somebody else’s shoes, it changes people – it opens them up to the ability to empathize.”

It starts a discussion.  Watching movies gets people talking again.  “When I’m watching movies, to program, I don’t pick my 150 favorite features for the festival.  I pick the ones where ‘there’s a group of people that need to see that’, or ‘need to see it’, or can build a community dialogue around this movie.”  Whether he loved it or not, if it’s a story he hasn’t seen before, and the subject moves him to give it a voice, Tom believes it’s something someone else wants to hear as well.  “I didn’t pick the 112 Best Feature Film for the Sarasota Film Festival, I picked the 112 Feature Films that we thought were necessary.”

Q– Have you ever experienced an obstacle professionally or personally that you weren’t sure you’d overcome; how did you?
A– “Early onset baldness, it’s happening right now.”
“I would have to say being a tiered two festival in Sarasota, we can’t do everything we want to do.  We don’t have access to certain films, certain celebrities, certain directors that we love.  The media benefit for the heavy hitting industry people of a market like Sarasota is a limitation.”

“There has been really great film production.  I think Jeannie Cochran and the Film Commission Office has done a really great job trying to encourage people to come from out of town and make movies here.”

“…What you really need is talent.  You need to create a hot bed for talent, not infrastructure.  In order to build a hot bed for young, creative talent, the fundamental premise of the city needs to change.  There’s no downtown nightlife, there is not a lot of services for young people here, colleges/ students are completely isolated, segregated in town.  They don’t go out.  Young creators are not going to stay here and build this world unless there is a city that supports that lifestyle.  You’re competing with Brooklyn, NY, Los Angeles, Portland, you’re competing with Chicago.  Talent will go and get a smaller apartment, not going to get a beautiful beach front house and they don’t care.  I’ve been in Sarasota ten years and the beach once.  The weather is beautiful – out the window of my office.”

Q– Are there any celebrity’s that have surprised you by being other than you had expected?
A– “All of them.  I never met any of them in person until they get here.  We work through the filmmakers or their representatives.  You just don’t get a lot of conference calls with Charlize Theron, that just doesn’t happen.  Every time they come, there is a trust you have to build.  They’re not here to be my best friend, and I’m not here to be their best friend.  I’m here to make them look good, and they’re here to make the festival look good.  There is a complicit understanding.  I have zero expectation.  I’ve only had one bad experience in my ten years here which was Gary Busey.  The only person who’s ever taken a professional situation and went out of his way to be an asshole.”

Q– What do you think drove his behavior?
A– “I don’t think he’s well.”

Q- Anything embarrassing ever happen to you while with a celebrity and you wanted to die?
A– “Not here, but yes.”  
During his first years at IFC, Tom loved the French film, A Dreamlife of Angels, and fell for one of the films actresses.  There was a party at Sundance and she came.  One of the first to arrive, Tom approached the young actress, and lost it.  “This movie is so great, I loved it, you were so amazing, I am a fan…” after seven or eight minutes of not coming up for air, Tom realized she’s French.  She didn’t speak any English.  Even if she wanted to, Tom wasn’t giving her a chance as he profusely praised her.

Q– How do you get the celebrities to come to the festival?
A– “Other film festivals should learn this:  We don’t pay, ever.  We never pay people to attend.  There is an inherent responsibility that I think a lot of actors feel toward projects that they love.  Projects that we show are not their studio movies, with junkets, and them going to LA for ten days.  It is an independent movie that they’re doing for scale or passion project that they like.  The filmmaker is usually a huge advocate on our behalf.  We have the trust of people who are decision makers that it will be a safe, professional, fun, relaxing environment for their talent.  Over time, people know that when they come here, they’re going to be taken care of.”

Q– Over the years, you have amassed quite a bio working in film.  In January of 2010, you were named one of Springboard Media’s 20 under 40 in Film.  I’ve read your blog, The Back Row Manifesto and I know you like to “write about films that move me, talk to artists who inspire me, and share my passion for the cinema…”  This 2014 festival, what films move you and are there any artists who have inspired you?
A– “Richard Jenkins, who is coming in for Conversation In for God’s Pocket, is someone I am very passionate about as an actor; I think he’s incredible.  Also, all of our big movies, they’re in those slots for a reason.  If it were up to me, this film festival would have every movie in black and white, three hours long, and in Romanian.”

“There is one film that will be considered a masterpiece with a big ‘M’ in the future, which is Ida, an incredible movie.  Everyone who sees this movie is either going to hate it or they’re going to be like, ‘that was the greatest thing.’  There is no middle ground on this.”

Suzanne, a French movie, no one is buying tickets to and a top pick on Tom Hall’s list this year.  “Suzanne is an amazing movie…it is a well told story and very realistic.”

The opening night film, Last Days In Vietnam, Tom insists, “there won’t be a dry eye in the house”.  
“Closing night is probably the most accessible, fun, funny but with an amazing crazy twist.”  SFF 2014 Closing Night Film is The One I Love.

Q– Where do you see yourself professionally in ten years; are there undiscovered roads you want to, but haven’t yet traveled?
A–  “No, I’d like to be continuing to Program and Curate.  I love what I do.  I would love to see the festival continue to grow; that to me is the biggest, most important thing.  I don’t overstay my welcome here and I don’t feel complacent.”  In New York, where Tom’s family is, would be way easier, but he says he wouldn’t have, “the platform I have here, or the trust, or the experience.”

Q– “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen…” is the quote by Robert Bresson that you chose as the tag line to represent your blog, The Back Row Manifesto.  What quote represents you or the way you live your life?
A– “That one for sure!”  
Tom is trying to bring films to people who typically wouldn’t get to see them.  He appreciates what Burns Court does year round, showing art films.  “Without them, I don’t think the festival would survive.”  Even though the SFF and Burns Court aren’t the best of friends, having a David Letterman/ Oprah Winfrey battle from way back, Tom is the first to praise them, along with Regal Cinemas for their efforts of establishing and maintaining a film culture in Sarasota.

“Making it visible, I think that is a big part of it.  Connecting those people with the art of film and treating it like an art form.  And Bresson is like the best…”   

Q– If I asked your sons now, what would they say about their Daddy; and if I were to ask them as men, about the man, their father, what would you hope they’d say?
A- “If you asked them now, they’d say, ‘who?’ cause I’m always here.  
As Tom confesses his greatest fear, bursting into Harry Chapin’s, Cats In the Cradle, he talks about him and his boys ‘not having time for each other.’

“As men, I want them to be their own people, I want them to be happy, I want them to know that I’m there for them for whatever they need, and I’m sorry I divorced their mother.”

A wonderfully entertaining conversation with the witty, Tom Hall, Director of The Sarasota Film Festival in Sarasota, FL.  I hope our community realizes the artistic landscape we call home is not a luxury to be taken for granted, but a privilege we need to foster and help grow.  That’s what Tom Hall and the Sarasota Film Festival is doing.  We should support them – and us.  Get involved April 4 -13 and go to the movies, the events, the parties!   I’ll see you there.

The Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) April 4 – 13, 2014
Visit SFF Online to purchase tickets, Download the 2014 Film Guide, and much more!

About Lee Volpe:
Lee VolpeI was a slow reader, diagnosed with a learning disability, & by the end of third grade it was suggested I be held back. As part of the remedial tutoring I opted for, I was given the task to write a story.  Little did I know that assignment would be the genesis of me, the first taste, the moment that changed everything.  Daisy the Cow was the result of my 8 year old imagination.  A cow that was beloved by all the neighborhood children until someone gets a puppy & Daisy loses the spotlight.  Daisy begins howling at the moon, fetching, lifting her leg, & causing all kinds of trouble – for a cow.  With the help of her friends, Daisy realizes that she is special, loved, & perfect just the way she is.

At the time, I was approached & offered publication for Daisy the Cow.  After a year, I completed tutoring & was reading almost two grade levels higher.  I resolved my fear & dislike of reading.  And in finding the words, I found my voice.

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