Over the past 20 years, The Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) has become known for high-quality films, forums, and educational programs. It draws celebrities, locals, and visitors to East End theaters during the off-season for five days over Columbus Day weekend. As a popular presence at events and this year’s honorary chairman, Alec Baldwin has a true impact on the programming. “Probably half of the movies I see in the theater all year are at the festival,” he says, adding that the pleasure of the festival is to hunker down and watch films.

In this 20th anniversary year, the film festival has partnered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (famous for its annual Academy Awards, commonly known as the Oscars), to honor the legendary costume designer Ann Roth (The Hours, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and HBO’s Mildred Pierce). Celebrated in her field, Roth has nearly 200 film credits, has been nominated for four Academy Awards and three Emmys, and has won an Oscar (for The English Patient in 1997), a BAFTA, and a Costume Designers Guild Award. The festival’s director of programming, David Nugent, says, “We love to shine the light on really important people who are part of the process but are not immediately known to the public.”

The film festival’s executive director Karen Arikian says, “I believe we are the first festival the Academy has ever worked with—or certainly one of the first, so this is very prestigious.” East Hampton resident Nathan Lane is the master of ceremonies for the Roth tribute, which will include speakers Mike Nichols and Glenn Close.

Conceived in 1992 by a former Hollywood casting director, Joyce Robinson, the film festival got off to a quick start. She collected a group of colleagues to join the board and help raise money. Initial board members included Stuart Match Suna, who owns Silvercup Studios and is now its chairman of the festival, Steve Ross’s daughter, Toni Ross, and her late husband, Jeff Salaway, the owners of Nick & Toni’s restaurant. Describing the board composition, Suna says, “[Nick & Toni’s] is the restaurant to the stars. There was Steven Gaines, who was writing books about the stars. There was Joe Zicherman, who was a stockbroker to the stars. Joyce literally cast the board of directors.”

Since its inception the festival has had a small, local feel, in spite of the celebrities it draws. Arikian, who took over her role in 2008, says it was partially this sense that drew her to the job. “I always thought it was a little gem,” she says. “It was the only festival I had ever attended, big or small, where people welcome you—not just to their community but into their homes.”

The films screened by the festival during its two-decade history have been a unique mix of high-quality independent features, shorts, and documentaries. Suna describes the festival as “eclectic,” explaining that the founders’ intent was emphatically to not focus on Hollywood films. “Some people thought we were too eclectic, and then they decided it was part of our success,” he says.

While staying true to its identity, the festival has grown in stature. “The mission is to bring film, art, and culture to the Hamptons in the off-season and help grow economic development,” Suna says. “That hasn’t changed.”

When Arikian joined in 2008, one of the first things she and the board did was move up the dates of the film festival to Columbus Day weekend, taking advantage of the additional foot traffic of the three-day weekend and adding a fifth full day of cinema. This year the festival expects to accommodate approximately 18,000 to 20,000 viewers, screening approximately 80 full-length features and 60 shorts at locations throughout the Hamptons.

How the process of selecting the films for the event works is that Nugent, in conjunction with four people in his programming department, and a screening committee of 12 view 2,000 applications to the festival. Nugent frequents other venues—such as the Sundance Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Cannes Film Festival—and consults with industry peers, compiling a list of filmmakers and films to invite to the Hamptons.

Once the slate is confirmed, Nugent and Arikian select a panel of three judges from the art and film community to serve as a jury for the festival’s feature and short program, and another three to evaluate the documentaries. There are always a number of world, US, or East Coast premieres included in the line-up, giving the Hamptons audience a sneak peek of important upcoming films. The breakdown between international and US films is roughly 50-50. Nugent points out that many of the foreign language films would not otherwise be screened in the region. Documentaries are also a strong focus and account for approximately 40 percent of the works shown.

The film festival has had a number of success stories, but one often cited is its world premiere of Open Water. The low-budget film is loosely based on a true story about a scuba diving couple left stranded by their dive boat. Lionsgate bought the distribution rights for $2.5 million, and the film went on to make more than $50 million internationally at the box office.

From a critical point of view, the festival has been previewing the most important movies of the year as of late, screening the films that went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars for three of the past four years: Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, The King’s Speech in 2010, and The Artist in 2011. Proving that Hamptons audiences know a good film when they see it, the last two were also given Audience Awards at the HIFF. Nugent emphasizes that the committee selects and screens films before much of the chatter around the awards season.

Central to the festival are the round tables, panel discussions, and Q&A sessions scheduled around the films. The “Conversation with…” program, held on the stage at Guild Hall and Bay Street Theatre each year, gets talent involved in a lively conversation. “The very first year Steven Spielberg interviewed Martin Scorsese, and since then we have had everyone from Vanessa Redgrave and Alan Alda, to Matthew Broderick, James Franco, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet,” explains Nugent. “For our audiences to hear one-on-one conversations with an interviewer is something really special that they enjoy.” Both Nugent and Arikian credit the sophisticated, educated, interested Hamptons audience as a crucial element in the success of the festival and its events.

Arikian has worked diligently to expand programming beyond the run of the festival itself, and she continues to seek out new opportunities. The SummerDocs program held at Guild Hall has been one successful outcome. Created by Nugent and the board with Baldwin, the series presents three to five documentaries during the summer. The actor hosts them, and conducts a dialogue with the filmmakers and sometimes the talent involved. Baldwin says one of his favorite parts of being involved with the festival has been putting together the program and working with Nugent, who is similarly passionate about documentaries, and the actor praises the quality of all documentaries they have selected. He points to The Zen of Bennett that recently was screened to a sold-out crowd. A touching portrait of Tony Bennett’s life, the film was created and conceived by his son Danny Bennett. To the delight of the audience, both the artist and filmmaker were on stage with Baldwin for a Q&A after the film.

Focusing on partnerships with other nonprofits for programming and promotion has also been a critical goal for Arikian. “You can double everything with collaboration especially when you are working with good partners,” she stresses. This concept has led to partnerships with the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, and the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan, as well as collaborations with The Watermill Center and Martos Gallery on the East End. The festival is also partnering with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for a special focus on UK films for the 2012 festival.

Looking toward the future, Arikian believes that the festival is well-positioned to continue its success. “It is small, very informal, relaxed, and in a beautiful environment. So I wouldn’t want to change it. Everyone always asks, ‘What is the next step? How do we grow?’ To tell you the truth, I think that this is the festival that it should be right now, so long as the programming maintains its quality.” The Hamptons International Film Festival takes place October 4 through 8; visit hamptonsfilmfest.org for more information and a schedule of events.

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