Film festivals’ best unreel in Palm Springs

Film festivals’ best unreel in Palm Springs

Thursday, October 25, 2001

By Rebecca Redshaw
In the Broadway show “The Music Man,” when Harold Hill comes to River City, he turns the town upside down sharing his enthusiasm and hope in bringing entertainment to the Midwest.

Craig Prater, creator and event producer of the Festival of Festivals, does Professor Hill one better with his fledgling endeavor. Featuring the creme de la creme of award winners from film festivals around the world, this 11-day event in the California desert communities around Palm Springs occurs today through Nov. 4.

There are more than 400 film festivals held every year throughout the world, and even film lovers may question the wisdom of creating yet another.

“In the eight years I’ve been working with festivals, I’ve become fascinated by the films that slip through the cracks,” Prater said. “I would see an incredible film at the Berlin or Toronto Festival, and then it would disappear, never heard from again. So, I thought, if I start this new festival, why can’t the winners from other events be our focus?”

This year, one of Prater’s favorites, “Gloomy Sunday,” is a case in point. “Right after the Cannes Film Festival, where it was a big hit, a well-known U.S. distributor acquired the rights but then didn’t know how to market the film, so it sat on the shelf,” he said. “When I contacted the filmmakers to find out its status, they had just pulled the print back to Germany from the distributor.”

Prater cut his teeth in the business under the tutelage of the late Sonny Bono, who in 1993 was mayor of Palm Springs. After nine seasons as executive director, Prater parted company with the Palm Springs Nortel International Film Festival last year.

Entrepreneurs willing to risk their own money are rare, yet Prater believes in himself and looks at the risks of this festival venture through realistic but positive eyes.

“Everything that’s happening here, I am responsible for. I am obligated financially and committed to making this work. My name, my reputation and my money — what little I’ve got — are on the line.”

So, the Festival of Festivals was born and met with enthusiasm by diverse factions of the community. In addition to contributing $50,000 toward the festival’s operations, Cathedral City will act as the host for the opening and closing events.

In addition to the festival, Prater has scheduled a number of auxiliary events.

A panel called “Saving Treasures” includes leading experts in the field of film restoration and preservation. Noted producer Robert Kline will present “First Works,” tapes of rare interviews with famous directors. In addition to the new films, a retrospective of films, for the most part available only on video, will include Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and Val Guest’s “The Abominable Snowman.” Guest, who directed that feature in 1957, will be on hand for discussion.

Another special appearance is scheduled for the screening of “Black Fox,” narrated by Marlene Dietrich. Maria Riva, Dietrich’s daughter, will share her personal memories of her mother’s involvement with this rarely seen film about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

Unlike many festivals, this one embraces all ages of the community. Within the 11-day event, there will be a four-day International Children’s Film Festival complete with a youth panel of jurors and awards created by elementary age children to acknowledge participants. All profits from the Children’s Festival will be donated to the Children’s Museum of the Desert.

The variety of events and films at this festival is best reflected in the categories of awards to be presented closing night. The Palm Springs chapter of Women in Film will sponsor the award ceremony with producer Gale Ann Hurd (“The Terminator,” “Armageddon,” “The Waterdance”) scheduled to present the award for Best Female Director. Other awards include The Hadassah Award, The Passion Latino Award, The Diversity Awareness Award and the Vision Award, given to the best digital film entered in that special segment of the festival.

If the screening of the movies is the fun part, the organization of an event of this magnitude is the challenge. Eight theaters will operate from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. for 11 days. Prater refers to his core group of 12 assistants as his “UPSers,” a k a Un-Paid Staffers. They will coordinate the more than 200 volunteers who have signed on to take tickets or pass out fliers for the privilege of seeing a movie or two.

Prater acknowledges the event couldn’t happen without them. “Over the years, I have appreciated volunteers. They’re the only way a film festival can survive.”

But the fact is the Festival of Festivals was created by one man’s dream. Growing up on a farm in Missouri, Prater couldn’t have imagined where he is today.

“I grew up loving film, but I was going to be an English teacher. But I remember my grandmother sitting me on the couch when I was maybe 10 years old and handing me a magazine called Motion Picture. She said, ‘You read this ’cause you’re gonna need to know what’s going on in the world.’ ” Prater laughs, “I think I’m haunted by her voice.”