PFF28: Interview with Andrew Greenblatt & Michael Lerman

The 28th Philadelphia Film Festival is approaching quickly, and The Moviegoer had the opportunity to speak with two of its key players! Read my conversation with the insightful, talkative, and hilarious Andrew Greenblatt and Michael Lerman below.

Hannah: It’s nice to meet you guys! To start off, would you please talk about your positions in the Philadelphia Film Festival and your work outside of the festival?


Andrew: I’m Andrew Greenblatt, the executive director here at the [Philadelphia] Film Society. I produce the festival amongst all the other year-round stuff that we do both at the Philadelphia Film Center, the PFS Roxy, and anywhere else we tend to go.


Michael: I’m Michael Lerman, the artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Society, which does both the festival and all those activities that Andy listed. I also am a programmer and Senior Manager of Programming at the Toronto International Film Festival. I also work on the Overlook Film Festival with Andy Greenblatt, where I’m the co-director and he’s the managing director. And I also make movies, as does Andy.


H: What movies have you guys made?


A: Nothing actively, right now.


M: Andy just had the ten-year anniversary of his film Everything Must Go!


A: No, it wasn’t ten years...


H: Is that the film with Will Ferrell?


A: It is the film with Will Ferrell.


M: Andy produced that movie.


A: That film is 2011.


H: That’s eight years.


M: Why didn’t we have an eight-year anniversary screening?


A: We didn’t have an eight-year anniversary, it was a tenth-year anniversary for me and they wanted to show a film of mine, and I said, “You may as well pick the best one.”


M: Got it. The last movie I wrote and produced was called Man from Reno, for which I was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.


H: So, following that, what is the history of the Philadelphia Film Festival? Who started it, when did it start, what was it inspired by, why do we need a film festival in Philly?


A: The festival started twenty-eight years ago by the International House, and it was called the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema at the time. It grew very big very quickly, too big for International House, so they brought on TLA [Theater of Living Arts] to run it, and within a few years they gave it to TLA to completely take over. TLA formed the Philadelphia Film Society eighteen years ago to manage the festival and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Sometime around eleven years ago, the two festivals split – the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival stayed with TLA for a while, and we took the Philadelphia Film Festival with us as the Philadelphia Film Society.

As to why there should be a film festival, it fundamentally starts with the lack of theaters in Philadelphia. In the Center City area, I believe there are sixteen screens, and if you extend that to South, North, and West you get another thirty screens. You get forty-six screens for the entire millions of people in Philadelphia. That’s kind of an embarrassment – you’d have more screens than that on 42nd street in New York. It means that a lot of great films never get seen, even when you add those thirty screens back in, because those thirty screens are showing the same twelve movies. So, really, you’re not getting a variety of film – you’re not getting a lot of the smaller films or independent films. Part of what the festival does is it rectifies the lack of screens by letting us shine a light on these films that may never get a theatrical release in Philadelphia, and if they do, it’ll be token, short, and then gone. Even something like Cunningham, which is in the festival, that’ll never be shown in 3D again in the city, because no one else will do it. So that’s why there’s a festival, to really bring these films here, give people the opportunity to see them as they were meant to be seen, in a theater, with an audience.


H: I like that answer a lot. I greatly value the idea that we should be exposed to as many films as possible, so, yeah, I 100% agree. So, what generally goes into planning the Philadelphia Film Festival, and were there any weird quirks that stood out this year among the others, or even in past years, any funny story you’d like to share?


M: There’s a lot of infighting.


Everyone: laughs


A: This has been our easiest year, what are you talking about?


M: Yeah, we had a really easy year.


A: It’s been a great year!


M: The planning process is just, it’s like scouring the world looking for films, and working with the prescreening team, the programming team, and looking at what we have. Then, there’s another whole side of it that focuses on the logistics, all the pieces that you want to refine every year. I think that we, at this point, after ten years of us doing this together and many years of the festival existing, it’s really about us knowing our identity, wanting to refine that identity and the user experience, and making sure the audience member is having the best experience they can. We’re always trying to find fresh voices and new things we can do in the program. We’re also trying to just highlight the best films that are out there. I don’t have a quirky story about that, unfortunately.


A: I find it interesting that Mike didn’t say this, but he’s actually been with the festival for longer than me. You started here in the end of 2008!


M: This is my twelfth year non-consecutive; I had a year off. This is my twelfth festival here, non-consecutive, I believe...no...thirteenth festival here, non-consecutive. Yeah, I had a year off. It was your [Andy’s] first year.


A: No, no it wasn’t!


M: Yes, yes it was.


A: In 2008?


M: Yeah.


A: Either way, I said I wouldn’t take the job unless Mike stayed.


H: Okay, so, you gave me the logistics behind the festival planning, how exactly do you choose the lineup? Have you ever had to make any painful cuts?


M: We make a lot of cuts, and every one of them is painful. Anytime you have to tell a filmmaker “no,” it’s painful. Anytime you have to tell somebody “no” about their work, it’s painful. We see a lot more content than what’s shown in the festival – I personally see like seven hundred movies a year, and that includes the commercial stuff, but a lot of that is for programming, and a lot of that is saying no to people, and a lot of that is a bummer. I think the choices are just...what you’re really looking for is the beautiful intersection of something that makes sense for this audience and something that has massive artistic merit, right? And what you want is something that’s going to appeal to these people because it’s artistically so high in value that it’s important to show it. I think Philadelphia has one of the most film-savvy audiences I’ve seen almost anywhere, and it’s always exciting because you can always try new things here, and there’s always someone who’s interested. It’s not every audience member loving everything, but there’s always somebody who’s very interested in what we’re doing, and it’s exciting to be able to do that because you can try any type of cinema and make it work. That said, there are things that we, you know, we collect audience ballot numbers and such, so there’re things we know more every year than we had before about what works on a mass scale and what doesn’t here.


A: I’ve seen the programming team strive really hard for balance and diversity too. I mean, you’re talking about hard cuts, I won’t say specific films, but I’ve seen the weighing between two films for one last slot, and what’s chosen is what fits better, what’s needed, because we have a limited number of slots. It was really hard this year to get everything in with what we wanted, because we’re eleven days and in we are in four venues. Most days are four screenings, each screen per day except on weekends which are are five, so there are only so many slots and it’s hard to balance.


M: I also think when Andy’s talking about diversity, he’s talking about both in the style of filmmaking and the tone, but also who’s telling the story, what type of story is being told, who’s the audience for this story.


A: It’s a broad diversity.


H: What are you guys excited about in this year’s lineup?


M: Everything. The full one hundred and twenty movies. That’s what I’m most excited about. These are the one hundred and twenty choices. It took blood, sweat, and tears to get here, and we’re pumped about every one of them, for good reason. That’s like saying I’ve laid five hundred things in front of you, now which one hundred and twenty are you most excited about? Now tell us which one you’re most excited about? It’s very hard.


H: I figured I’d ask, even though it’s a weird question.


A: Everyone asks that question, don’t worry about it. We give the same answer every time too.


M: Yeah, we’re difficult with that question.


H: Okay, so next question, then – what opportunities are there for students at the festival?

A: Tons! We have hundreds of volunteers and they help with every aspect of the festival, we could not run without them. They get to see a lot of things, they get free tickets, it’s a lot of fun, we try to keep it fun for them. There’s also special student pricing. Every film has a rush line, and what that means is that, if a film is sold out, you can line up a half-hour or hour before the film and, if there are open seats, we will let people in because we want every seat filled. Students pay less at rush than the public, about seven dollars, so students can experience the film festival that way fairly successfully. There’s also the Young Friends Membership that students will qualify under, and there’s a special Young Friends event in the festival. So, there are a lot of ways for students to get engaged and come to this festival. It’s a lot of fun.


M: Also, every screening is open to the public.


H: Last question: where do you see the festival in the future?


A: In Philadelphia.


Everyone: laughs


M: It’s a tough question, because at this point in time we’re always looking towards the next two weeks. I can’t see my face past my nose...I don’t know what that means.


Everyone: laughs


M: From here, I can’t see your face past your nose. But, you know, I think that’s the point. That expression, or lack thereof, is indicative of how much work we put in every year, and then you see people loving it, and then you regroup. Ask us again in four weeks, and maybe we’ll have an answer for you. Or after four weeks, and then four weeks of sleep.


A: The closest thing I can give to you as an answer is that we’re really happy with how the festival has grown over the last several years. When we started, there were films that we wanted that we couldn’t get from certain distributors, and now we get almost every film from certain distributors, and it’s a testament to the growth of the program as well as some status in the industry. It’s been nice to watch the festival grow, and it was nice to see us picked up in Variety this year. So, more of that is what we’d like to see as a base level of the future, and as we continue to expand this building [The Philadelphia Film Center], we’ll get more screens, and then more films in the festival.


H: All right, that’s all I have for you, thank you very much!


Read more about the Philadelphia Film Festival, and pre-order tickets, here: http://filmadelphia.org/festival/

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