By Elizabeth Rahe
For Gregory von Hausch, serving at the helm of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival for 27 of its 30 fests has been a roller-coaster ride.
The annual routine involves screening 1,000 movies and raising funds, coordinating festival films and celebrity guests, hosting parties and coming up with themes and special events. Add to that, over the years, the opening of two theaters with year-round programming, a couple of hurricanes and a film-market fiasco, and you can understand why he says:
“This is my 27th festival. It feels like my 54th.”
There have been plenty of highs along the way – every closing night among them, he says. Then there was the day in 1994 when Bonnie Leigh Adams joined the effort and the day she joined with von Hausch in marriage, Dec. 8, 2001. He is president and CEO; she is senior program director. In 2003 they welcomed their daughter, Soleil, now 12 and a veteran film screener in her own right.
On the occasion of FLiFF’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with von Hausch about a few more ups and downs from his roller-coaster ride. Following is an excerpt from that conversation:
City & Shore: After 27 festivals, what do you still find surprising?
Gregory von Hausch: That it hasn’t gotten any easier! You’d think I’d have it down by now. This is probably the hardest year yet. So many people have expectations that something tremendous will happen because it’s the 30th year. I’ve been trying to spin the pie plates in the air. I think we’ll be successful, but it’s always nerve-wracking. It’s like a Broadway producer on opening night, chain-smoking cigarettes – and I don’t smoke. I say this every year: My least favorite night of the year is opening night, and my favorite night is closing night. With each day after that, it’s my second favorite, third favorite, until I get down to my 364th favorite, and then it’s opening night again.
C&S: What is the greatest challenge?
GVH: Everybody has strong opinions; they think of us personally, as their film fest. If you disappoint them, you disappoint them spiritually and emotionally. We try to be all things to all people. Doing that we always fail, but at least we give it a shot. We try to put in as many different countries and different genres as we can. But I tend to stay away from violence – a personal preference.
C&S: What’s the best decision you’ve ever made in relation to the festival?
GVH: Early on I realized nobody knew who we were, locally, nationally and certainly not internationally. I thought it was important to establish our identity, so [in 1991] we went to Cannes and threw a big party. We’ve been doing that ever since. People do know us now. We’re not in the league, certainly financially, with the major fests, like Sundance, Toronto, Venice or Berlin, but in Cannes we are able to compete with them because of this party. We get about 1,200 filmmakers and press come to it. They remember it. We’ve won a lot of personal relationships that way. Strategically that might be the most important thing that we’ve done.
C&S: How about the worst?
GVH: There’s a lot of competition, but probably my biggest bonehead decision was in 1991 when I was still pretty fresh on the job. These two gentlemen from Europe convinced me to do a film market, where companies bring films to sell. We got about 40-45 European companies to come over. It was a great success for them, but they left and no one paid. It just about put us out of business. I had to eliminate the staff and raise a quarter-million dollars in 18 months. Coming out of that, ’92 is when Andrew hit. Cellular One was one of our big sponsors, and they gave me eight huge cell phones that looked like World War II walkie-talkies. We had no electricity and no phone service, and it was right before the festival so I had to carry those phones in a tote bag. When one of them rang, I had to pick them all up to see which one was ringing. It looked like a Red Skelton skit.
C&S: Your daughter, Soleil, has grown up watching movies. Is she still a film buff?
GVH: She loves films. She’ll watch documentaries, black-and-white retrospectives, foreign films with all the subtitles. She’s a great kid. She started middle school this year, so that’s a whole big change.
C&S: Bonnie has said that the secret to your marriage and collaboration in FLiFF is that you work upstairs and she works downstairs.
GVH: That’s still true. I’m a little bit messier than her. I don’t have a huge office but I’ve taken over every square inch or it for sure.
ONLINE BONUS: More of our interview with Gregory von Hausch:
C&S: How has the film festival scene changed since 1989?
GVH: When we first started the studios came to us readily because we were their free way of marketing films. With the advent of DVDs and Blu-ray, movies were going to video right after they opened. Studios didn’t need us quite as much. Luckily, our focus has mainly been foreign films so it hasn’t been as difficult as with studio films. Then we opened one cinema [Cinema Paradiso - Fort Lauderdale, 2000] and another one [Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood, 2013], and we had to focus on programming all year. That was challenging, to say the least. We’ve been helped with Skype. If filmmakers can’t make it into town, we can Skype them in. Social media, with people being able to post questions and pictures, is also an interesting facet.
C&S:What about the switch to digital screenings?
GVH: In 2013 the movie industry mandated that we transform from film to digital. We have two theaters, and it cost over $50,000 for each one, so we’re trying desperately to pay for our equipment. If you see a full house at the cinema, know that does not even come close to meeting the expenses for the equipment upgrades. Not to mention the overhead of the staffing or utilities or film rental. The product looks great on screen. It’s equal to film in look and feel, and it’s cheaper to ship and replicate. We have satellite dishes, and films can be beamed to us from any country in the world.