It's surprising in some ways that the Hawaii International Film Festival has survived to celebrate its 20th birthday.
Homegrown filmHIFF overcomes tiff
Schedule of major events
By Tim Ryan
That HIFF -- opening tomorrow on Oahu and continuing statewide through Nov. 19 -- has prospered and grown, continuing to attract highly regarded and hard-to-get films, filmmakers, actors and critics, is nothing short of miraculous, considering the growing number of festivals worldwide and competition for motion pictures, especially Asian pictures.
There was some luck involved. The popularity of Asian films and filmmakers has grown tremendously since the first festival, when founder Jeannette Paulson -- now Paulson-Hereniko -- and her staff selected 14 features for their power to carry viewers into another culture and another world.
"Film festivals have proliferated like maggots," said Jeff Portnoy, president of HIFF's board of directors. "This weekend alone, four other major film festivals, including London, are opening.
Guides: Available at Blockbuster Video and Starbucks stores
For tickets: Call 528-4433
Tickets: $7 on Oahu; $6 for HIFF ohana members. On other islands, $5 and $4.
Online info: www.hiff.org
Coming up: Reviews of the Golden Maile nominees will run in the Today section tomorrow through Nov. 9
"Competition to get films is unbelievable and distributors have become more selective as to where they'll allow their films to be shown. A deal made today for a film can be dead tomorrow if a distributor gets a better location."
But HIFF's success primarily has come from hard work, leaders knowing what attendees want to see, and dedication to reinventing the festival annually while keeping true to its theme, "When Strangers Meet."
Staff this year also worked to find new sources of funding to cover the loss of about $500,000 in government subsidies.
Chuck Boller, HIFF's new director, has spent much of the year rekindling financial relationships with major sponsors. He also helped create new film programs such as "Made in Hawaii: A Retrospective of Hawaii Film Makers," moved to never-before-used venues such as the Hawai'i Convention Center and returned to former venues such as Consolidated Theatre's Waikiki 1 and 2. In the process he sold the most film society memberships in HIFF's history.
"The festival is thriving," Boller said. "Some things may have taken longer than we would have liked, but we still completed the tasks at hand. We're ready."
Any glitches this year -- the late announcement of some films, the withdrawal of another -- are the sort of problems experienced by any film festival, Boller and Portnoy said.
The announcement of "Shadow of the Vampire" as the closing night film was late because HIFF was being "conservative" to ensure it had the film, Portnoy said.
Asian films, the bedrock of HIFF, have increased in popularity tenfold.
"It wasn't that long ago when no one wanted to see Asian films and we could get about anything we wanted in a heartbeat," Portnoy said.
But this year, Toronto and Cannes had more Asian films than ever in their history, making it far more difficult for Honolulu to get its usual share, he said.
Securing Ang Lee's "Crouching Lion, Hidden Dragon" for opening night was "a major coup," Boller said.
"Every film festival in the U.S. is after this film and only four are getting it, including Honolulu," he said.
A major factor in stabilizing HIFF's future -- and one that may have been overlooked -- is the addition of prominent and influential board members.
"In order for this organization to get where it needs to go, you have to have more than just a few people to depend on," Portnoy said. "For most of its 20 years (HIFF) has been run by just a few people. You can't maintain longevity and stability that way."
Since January, the HIFF board has grown from about 20 members to 30, Portnoy said, and they are capable of attracting sponsors. The board, which once met sporadically, now meets monthly.
In January, HIFF had to deal with possible public fallout from the sudden firing of its executive director, Christian Gaines.
Boller and Portnoy said there's been no long term impact from Gaines' dismissal.
"Certainly, there was concern those first couple months about potential consequences from a very tough decision," Portnoy said. "But we have a very strong staff in place that has gotten major films for this festival, brought in more major sponsors and did successful fund-raising."
Switching to new venues such as the convention center and in Waikiki indicates the festival is evolving, Boller said.
Perhaps most importantly, HIFF seems to be doing better financially.
"We believe we'll make more money this year than we spend," Portnoy said. "The past year has primarily been spent putting the festival on strong financial footing."
That's meant paying off some debts as much as 5 years old, negotiating lower amounts, or working out deals to give those owed some festival services, Portnoy said.
This is a far cry from a year ago when Portnoy said there were "legitimate questions" about whether HIFF could continue at its usual level of excellence.
"People want the Hawaii International Film Festival to succeed," Boller said.
When Hawaii International Film Festival board member Dwight Damon heard the vote count that ousted executive director Christian Gaines during a meeting in January, Damon, the largest individual contributor to HIFF, was "happy."
Former HIFF director
still stung by dismissal
By Tim Ryan
"I believe I uttered an expression of a positive nature," said Damon, one of the most influential members of the now 30-member board (it had 22 members at the time of Gaines' dismissal), as well as HIFF's programming committee chairman.
Damon, who owns the Movie Museum in Kaimuki and contributes about $80,000 to HIFF through the business, was a key player in the ouster of Gaines that apparently began after HIFF's spring film festival last year.
The move to remove Gaines -- reportedly over management style -- involved collecting staff memos for several months and garnering support from at least two other prominent staff members, with Damon eventually bringing the problems to the board's attention in January. Gaines was hired in 1996.
Months after his ouster, Gaines --who came from the Sundance Film Festival's California office and who is now executive director of the prestigious American Film Institute's Los Angeles International Film Festival -- is still angry about his dismissal. This summer, he sent a letter to HIFF board members expressing his dissatisfaction and feelings of betrayal. He puts responsibility squarely on Damon's shoulders.
"I was never given a legitimate reason by the board for my dismissal except personality conflicts," Gaines said. "I was never allowed to respond to complaints. Dwight worked behind my back to have me removed."
Gaines also said several of newer HIFF board members were "intimidated" by Damon's influence.
"I believe he subconsciously gave the board an ultimatum: Either they get rid of me or they could say goodbye to him and his financial resources," Gaines said.
Board members declined to discuss the controversy after Gaines ouster, citing confidentiality reasons. Now, some 10 months later, the feeling is it's "water under the bridge and there's nothing to be served by revisiting it," said Jeff Portnoy, HIFF board chairman.
"It was a painful period for everyone," he said. "Christian has gone on to something that's great for him and (HIFF) is doing just fine."
Jeannette Paulson-Hereniko, who founded HIFF 20 years ago, also declined to talk about the matter, saying the time isn't appropriate with the two-week festival beginning tomorrow.
In his first extensive interview since Gaines' dismissal, Damon, 42, said, "The problems (with Gaines) all boiled down to management style."
"He's not a manager," Damon said. "He got an awful lot of money for being executive director and part of that responsibility was to cover various things like attracting sponsors and fund-raising. "These were Christian's weak points."
By mid-1999 a rift had developed between Gaines and festival staffers Louella Costales, director of development and marketing, and Chuck Boller, the new executive director.
Gaines described running a film festival as a "complicated game."
"There were difficult decisions to be made and some alienated or disenfranchised some people; that's inevitable," he said. "But I was the boss."
Gaines' "stylistic problems" caused low staff morale and "people to feel bad about their work," Damon said.
But not all of the HIFF staff had problems with Gaines. Former publicist Donne Dawson quit after Gaines' dismissal. Dawson said she had problems with Damon, who overstepped his responsibilities.
Damon declines to say whether he would have left HIFF, withdrawing his contributions, if Gaines remained executive director.
"But I was very, very unhappy with the relationship between Christian and me," Damon said. "In my mind, the festival could not continue to exist if it (stayed) the way it was."
Gaines said he was "stunned" when he was told by Portnoy he had been voted out.
"The festival since I took over was better off in prestige, publicity, ticket sales, attracting movie stars," he said. "I felt incredible betrayal."
Damon said no one person is more important than the festival.
"It was best for the festival to let Christian go than to have to replace the entire staff," he said. "It would have been lovely if (Christian) could have stayed."
events on Oahu
TomorrowOpening Night Films at Waikiki I: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at 8 p.m.; "The Yards" at 10:30 p.m.
Monday"Meet the Delegates Reception": 6 p.m., Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, Aloha Tower Marketplace
TuesdayJimmie Little sings: Before 7:45 p.m. "Buried Country" screening, Hawai'i Convention Center, Screening Theatre 2
WednesdayBaywatch Beach Party: 5:30 to 7 p.m., Hilton Hawaiian Village Lagoon Lawn
Nov. 9Sons of Hawaii concert: Before 6 p.m. "Sons of Hawaii" screening, Hawai'i Convention Center, Screening Theatre 1
Nov. 10Awards ceremony and reception: 6 p.m., Hawaii Convention Center, Screening Theatre 1 and third floor
Nov. 11Closing night film: "Shadow of the Vampire," Hawaii Theatre, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 12Screening of award-winning films: University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Campus Center Ballroom
Click for online
calendars and events.