Recently I sat down with two of the Lake Placid Film Forum’s organizers. Let’s call them Organizer X, and Organizer Y.
We start off talking about the old days. We addressed a certain sentiment that hangs, like the effluvium of burnt eggs in the kitchen, that the Lake Placid Film Forum is an event struggling to return to what it “once was.”
“We’re not trying to replicate what we did in 2004,” says Organizer X, “any more than we’re trying to turn it into Telluride or Toronto. This little village here has its share of summer time events – right now the Marathon and the Fireman’s convention have all the hotels booked our same weekend. And that’s great. We’re returning to the roots of the original vision, which was to be modest, sustainable, and exceptional. I think this year will prove that.”
“I’m not sure how modest we were in 2000,” says Organizer Y, and gives a sweet laugh. (Okay, Organizer Y is Kathleen Carroll, the Forum’s Artistic Director. You got me.)
“Well, no, right…” says X, and I deftly shift gears and say, “Has it really been ten years? Talk about that. And talk about, if you would, the ups and downs. Let’s clear the air, once and for all; set the record straight.”
X and Y seem happy to oblige.
Ten years ago, the first Lake Placid Film Forum opened in Lake Placid to glorious reception and exceptional reviews. It was not, as Carroll, miss Organizer Y, notes, exactly “humble.” It was a big event, with Guest of Honor Milos Forman, films like “Man on the Moon” (Forman’s own), “Saving Grace,” “Blood Simple,” and “The Tao of Steve.” Appropriate that year was a workshop entitled “Gaining a Foothold.” Presenters and guests included Michael Barker, Co-President of Sony Classics, Susan Charlotte, playwright, author, teacher, Marc Levin, Sundance award-winning director…and on and on. Cliff Robertson was about, and having a great time. He later said of the event, “There were no stretch limousines – no invasive paparazzi – there was no shouting and screaming – and no blustery Puff-Adder Hollywood producers. None of the usual farrago. Just a civil gathering of civil people with a civil, as well as a creative attitude. What a joy – what a contrast. You and your entire staff, crew and minions are to be congratulated. And this addled actor is a renewed fan of not only Saranac, but of film festivals, film festivals that hopefully follow your exemplary example. Bravo, bravo – brava, brava – and a big hug for all.”
That year definitely felt like a film festival, as we read in Mr. Robertson’s charming and eloquent annotation. Whether it matters of not, though, almost every year the event has occurred it has been officially a film forum, and not it’s oft-used other name, the Lake Placid Film Festival.
I asked the organizers, “What’s the distinction?”
It’s kind of a poetic difference, they told me, since forum means things like “discussion” and “think-tank” and “intimate,” and all those other watchwords. But it’s also technical. A festival is something that has a competition. And though there are usually awards of some kind every year for the event – things like Audience Choice Award don’t really apply here. A competition is juried, and a competition usually involves submissions. Not only that, but festivals are typically a place distributors and filmmakers go to seek one another out. It’s a meeting-place. A market place, and the screenings much like a market test. Indie helmers, actors and producers are there to promote their film, to get it picked up. There’s a little of that here still, the Organizers explain, but it’s more about people who love film to get together and talk about it, to enjoy it, to be together.
The one time the event was officially called a festival was in 2004. That was the year that trembled, so to speak.
“What happened in 2004?”
“There was ambition,” says X, “to be ‘international. To have competition. Some people were for it, some weren’t. And what happened was…well, to put that much program together, with Scorsese, the IFP Dinner for Five: On the Road collaboration, and French films, we had French films! – Intimate Strangers and Red Lights and then Scopitones, was this whole thing…I mean, Alan (Hofmanis, then Director of Programming) and Kathleen put together this incredible program. So you want to fill the seats. And we did. Don’t get me wrong – those seats were filled. But then you have how much it cost to get each one of them there, in advertising, how much you spent…look, there are still brochures and programs from that year in boxes. What does that tell you? And, like, a thousand posters. There was really a lot put into it. There was just no way to stay afloat afterwards.”
So what happened? In 2005, there was no Film Festival. Or Film Forum, either. The board huddled and regrouped. Staffers and volunteers had life happen to them, as it does, and things moved on, water purled under the bridge. Then a core group, however, of the board, of volunteers, of Kathleen and Russell, decided to put a little program together for 2006.
“One year is certainly enough to convince a person that something is ‘over’. You know? It dissipates from the collective consciousness. People move on. So, in 2006, even though there was a program, it had gone from international to local. That’s bypassing ‘national’ and even ‘regional.'”
Yes, it would be much, much smaller, but those engaged in this labor of love thought that, in a way, this more nuclear event was in the spirit of the original conception. Or at least closer to it. Like Kathleen Carroll said, though, 2000 wasn’t completely humble. But that doesn’t mean immodesty, either. “2000 was a successful year. And so have these last couple years been.”
By inviting guests from closer by, and culling film whose distributors wouldn’t charge huge rental fees – but were still truly exceptional works – and by advertising in the newspaper and with flyers and a simple semi-annual newsletter, all bereft publicity or expensive advertising, the Lake Placid Film Forum has continued on.
And it’s been growing.
Little by little, the Forum has built up a kind of momentum again, a kind of gravitas reassembling, sort of like the Sandman putting himself back together in Spider-Man 3.
“In late 2008 we opened up the old offices. We’d been doing this out of our homes. Thank God for the support of our members, our supporters. If it weren’t for people helping out like that…and Essex County Board of Supervisors. And NYSCA, when we were able to at least return their calls…”
A central place to answer the phone, to get the mail – simple, but oh-so necessary. The office reopened, a new staffer was hired – you guessed it, Organizer X – who had previously been a volunteer, a director of volunteers, and submissions director. Someone to sit at a desk and be a living presence. These things are necessary, indeed.
Now, in 2010, the Organizers are confident the LPFF is hitting stride once again. It’s just about perfect, they say, with the right number of films and guests to sustain the event without getting too top-heavy, or going overboard with marketing and promotion – using social media to help advertise, like a blog, and of course, Facebook. And the line-up this year seems to be in keeping with what they’re saying, these organizers; it does look good, with Parker Posey and Hal Holbrook as special guests who couldn’t be more different, but somehow seem to completely go together. Producer duo Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot. Debra Granik’s Sundance -winning Winter’s Bone. And the panel which wraps it all together in nice, well, maybe pink bow.
“The panel is called ‘Would the Movie Business, Wall Street, and possibly the Entire World Be Better Off with A Little More Estrogen?'” says Y, with characteristic cheeriness.
So, I’m left thinking, quite a story. An auspicious beginning, and five years later, an event that couldn’t quite sustain itself. Another key watchword, I think: Sustainability. Which seems in keeping with another theme of this year’s Forum: the Green Theme. With sponsors like Adirondack Green Circle, and films Big River, King Corn, and A Life Ascending,” sustainability is more than just le mot just. It’s becoming a way of life.
Adirondack Green Circle, on Facebook, recently wrote: “Anyone seen driving into town in a Prius gets a gold medal!” Indeed. Feeling plucky, the Lake Placid Film Forum replied, “All our filmmakers and guests this year are being flown in via hot air balloon.”
Well, maybe not exactly. But, the organizers are right: it’s a busy weekend, this coming June 10-13, with lots going on in the picturesque little village of Lake Placid. Amid long-distance runners and burly firemen you’re apt to get a glimpse of Parker Posey, chatting it up with Russell Banks. Or an exuberant filmmaking clan from Vermont, showing their feature The Summer of Walter Hacks. Or Carole Hart, director of For the Next 7 Generations talking kindly with film legend Hal Holbrook. You just never know. It’s a crazy life, and nothing’s certain.
But one thing that seems likely, the Lake Placid Film Forum is back. Back on its own terms, not looking to be something its not, but looking to be the best it can be. And from the looks of it, Cliff Robertson would be just as proud of 2010 as he was of 2000.