In anticipation for the 26th annual Philadelphia Film Fest I got a few moments to chat with the Executive Director of the fest Andrew Greenblatt and Artistic Director Michael Lerman about what to expect from this year’s lineup. Both men are not only Philly natives, but childhood friends as well that have been working with the fest now for well over a decade. While Andrew can be seen at most Philadelphia Film Society events throughout the year, Michael Lerman currently divides his time between programming for Philadelphia, Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
I’ve gotten to know both Michael and Andrew over the years thanks to their penchant for spending the fest chatting away with festival goers in-betweens screenings. So it was fun not only getting some of their pre-festival thoughts on their favorite films this year, but a few tips on why you really should fill out those audience ballots.
Artistic Director Michael Lerman
Can you start off by sharing a few thoughts of what we can expect from the 26th edition of the Philadelphia Film Festival?
Michael Lerman: I’ll let Andy take that one.
Andrew Greenblatt: Really? I thought you were going to go with that. (Laughs) It’s a really great program this year, its incredibly diverse. Like what you said at the curator’s event about how starting off with I,Tonya really sets the tone for the festival.
ML: I, Tonya is such a great example because it basically skirts the line between being this kind of salacious, but yet humanistic behind the scenes story; but still manages to find the humor. Somebody asked us at the curator’s event what was the best comedy was of the festival, but it’s kind of hard to say, because all the best dramas we’re showing have great comedy and all the best comedies are filled with real drama.
I think it is one of the more human festivals we’ve ever done. It’s not pushing itself towards the genre, but we do have genre work in it. But you know, today filmmakers are skirting a line between those two things, because they are finding insanity in reality.
Mike every year your really great at curating around this overarching theme to the fest, what would you say this year’s theme is? Would it be that comedy in the drama, you just brought up?
ML: Yeah I think it would be something along those lines along with the humanity of the stories we are telling. For the most part the program discusses that dichotomy.
Director of the Philadelphia Film Festival Andrew Greenblatt
Andrew you have now been the executive director of the Philadelphia Film Fest for twelve years now. To what extent do you think the festival selections reflect your personal taste?
AG: I think my taste is very broad and I think the program is very broad too. Mike and I have known each other for, I always get this wrong, like 24 years at this point and he knows my taste very well. Its always fun when he books a film and he’s like “you’re going to love this, this one’s totally for you.” You said that about The Villainess, you said I had to watch it and make it a top priority because I’m going to love it. So there is a lot of what I love here.
But there are also films I don’t know I am going to enjoy. That are out of my comfort zone, that I quickly fall in love with. I think the most conversations Mike and I have on the side are when I watched something and I’m like “Oh my god, I loved this!” and even he’s surprised that’s the film I am connecting to. But that is what a festival is for to show you things you may not go see you may write off. Sometimes you see a film you become an evangelist for it and when you talk about it that’s the one you tell everyone to see.
Now was there a film in past years that Mike programmed that just blew you away.
AG: Do you remember Headhunters? Yeah Headhunters was one of the films Mike said I had to see and it was one of my favorites of the year. I still love it, its fantastic.
Mike, I know the festival has grown, but how do you feel it’s changed over the years?
You know, it hard to say because we did the change ourselves and when you do it like that it’s hard to say it happened. You have sort of inspirations to say well that worked or that didn’t work. But I think what we have really tried to do is focus a lot on the audience data. There is a lot of our personal tastes and personal stamp on it, but all of that comes from the fact that Philadelphia is so accepting of many different things.
We’ll still shift around what our core base audience likes and schedule around it. Obviously there are the big cosmetic changes, we’ve taken over two theaters, we now run year round programming, we’ve done all those things. All of it has to do with listening to the audiences and making sure we can hyper focus our demographics and the tastes of people, so the audience balloting factors into a lot of what we do.
Andrew Greenblatt presenting M.Night with the Lumiere Award
So you take the data from the ballots and say okay people really like French films, so we need to add more of those to the schedule next year, which kind of give the audience a say in what they see the following year?
ML: Exactly! Though I think part of that has to do with instinct. Its not just the broad categories you mentioned its sometimes like is this a French movie about a child? Does it have this tone? A lot of it has to do with just remembering the comparison between several films and listening to the audience. It’s a difficult thing we do, but we try really hard.
Finally what would you say the hidden gem of the fest is, and what’s one film you hope folks will check out?
ML: The one I think will resonate with audiences most is Faces Places. I think that’s the big crowd pleaser. I mean obviously opening\closing. I love Florida Project, but the one that is not in one of those prime spots is Faces Places. On the flip side for your readers the one we didn’t talk about at the Curator’s Event, that I just kind of like, its my dark horse, is this very bizarre film called Sister of Mine. It skirts a lot of lines and I think it’s really beautifully made. That’s the one that is standing out to me right now.
I know it’s a cliché, but there are so many good ones this year. I think if anything this year is a festival of hidden gems. Last year had a lot of very obvious crowd pleasers, this year even the Cannes film is odd film. It’s a great film, but it’s an oddity in a way. You know its one of those things if Ruben Östlund didn’t already exist as an up and coming auteur and Force Majeure wasn’t a hit, you would receive this disc in the mail and think was the hell is this, this is amazing!
The festival is full of films like that and that doesn’t speak to the year we’ve had in film. All the soul crushing numbers and worrying about the business and other controversies going on its amazing that artists are still trying things and experimenting, that really says something.
AG: My big one that I would bring attention to is Thoroughbreds, I loved it since I saw it at the premiere at Sundance. I’ve been a huge fan of this film for nine months now and I have to go with that. Its got great performances all around and like Michael said its very Hitchcockian and that pretty dead-on.
Hidden Gems, I would have to say Mobile Homes and we will have the filmmaker in from Paris, so that is one I really hope people pay attention to. It’s a really interesting.