Twenty years ago, I covered my first Palm Springs International Film Festival.
The PSIFF was a much more modest event back then, and that year, the star of the festival was Sophia Loren. I remember it well—since she kissed me before a sea of cameras! She did it after I publicly asked her to send a message of peace to my country, the war-torn Yugoslavia.
Then and there, I fell in love with Sophia—and the festival, too.
In 2002, I was invited to a special event celebrating the 90th birthday of Loren’s husband, famed producer Carlo Ponti, with their son, Carlo Ponti Jr., conducting a symphony; their second son, director Edoardo Ponti, was also in attendance. I believe Spencer’s Restaurant owner Harold Matzner underwrote the event.
Matzner’s a Jersey fellow and a longtime PSIFF chairman. Following the event, I went to see him at his office, and we came up with an idea for the next PSIFF: Matzner was going to pay to bring an entire symphonic orchestra, with conductor Ponti Jr., to the fest! The orchestra was going to perform “Lara’s Theme,” from Dr. Zhivago, a movie produced by Ponti Sr. The idea was that Sophia Loren would give a lifetime achievement award to her hubby, and Edoardo Ponti would show his new movie at the fest.
It didn’t happen, because Ponti Sr. fell ill.
It takes a lot to run a film festival, including loads of money, and the PSIFF has long depended on the hefty help of its wealthy supporters. The Palm Springs International Film Society’s grand dame, the late Jackie Lee Houston, hosted so many events for the fest that it’s hard to count them all. The city of Palm Springs has pitched in, too; hey, the mayor, Steve Pougnet, has even been employed by the festival to assist in bringing in the dough!
Aside from money, the growing film fest needed star power—and, again, a lot of it. The fest’s most connected publicist, Ronni Chasen, steadily delivered the stars to the fest for a decade. Shockingly, Chasen was shot to death in 2010. According to the reports, Chasen was shot four times by a convicted felon while she drove her Mercedes on Sunset in Los Angeles. Later, the man who allegedly shot her killed himself during a standoff with the police. (There are many conspiracy theories about her tragic end, of course.) The festival offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of the perpetrator. The PSIFF is run by a nonprofit organization, so Chairman Matzner, once again, footed the bill.
But, as they say, the show must go on. Nowadays, the PSIFF—going into its 25th year—appears to be a well-oiled machine, with exclusive sponsors and record attendance. Still, by film-festival standards, the Palm Springs fest is fairly young; after all, the Venice Film Festival just celebrated its 70th year.
Though the PSIFF often has some Best Foreign Language Film Oscar buzz attached to its image, when it comes to popularity, the PSIFF lags behind the Tribeca fest, founded by Robert De Niro, as well as Robert Redford’s Sundance fest. The fact is, the star-power of the movie icons serves their festivals well. Here, the PSIFF was founded by the late Sonny Bono, in order to bring movie glamor back to Palm Springs. I’ve covered film fests in destination cities such as Rio and Bangkok, and little Palm Springs can’t match them in terms of glamor and image.
The tradition and reputation of a film fest matters. The legacy of a film fest matters. But what matters most are the films: Despite the tycoons and the big stars, a film festival is really about the movies being presented—and the PSIFF always offers a top-notch selection of films. And those films are what attendees will remember the most.
That’s a wrap!
The Palm Springs International Film Festival takes place Jan. 3-13, 2014. Most films are $11 or $12. For more information, including pass information and a complete schedule, visit www.psfilmfest.org.