October Spotlight: Karen Arikian

Karen Arikian’s journey from West Islip, where she grew up, to East Hampton, where she is now executive director of the Hamptons International Film Festival, took a few detours, including 15 years in Berlin, where she was an executive at the Berlin International Film Festival. Arikian, 54, is helming her second East Hampton event October 8-12. She vowed last year to strengthen the festival’s international accent, institute year-round events and forge partnerships with other organizations, all of which she did. Last year, she called upon a college friend, Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, and a former employer, photographer-filmmaker Bruce Weber, to plump the festival’s celebrity quotient. This year, the glam factor has increased with Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda in the mix. Arikian spoke to LI Pulse from her office on Newtown Lane.

What’s new for 2009?
First of all, we’ve moved the festival forward one week, to the Columbus Day weekend. The aim is to capitalize on this long weekend and really try to attract people from all over Long Island to come to this gorgeous place in a very calm period and enjoy fantastic world cinema. They can meet directors and actors, even on the street. This festival is so laid back, you could sit next to someone in a restaurant or bar, and they’re accessible. And you get films that in this day and age are just not going to get distribution, so you’re seeing films you can’t see anywhere else.

Do you also want to increase attendance because you rely on ticket sales?
About 40 percent of our revenues come from ticket sales, so it’s very significant. We’ve had maybe 20,000 to 25,000 people come in other years. If we could get a 15 or 20 percent increase, that would be fantastic.

How did your interest in films start?
I was doing a semester abroad in England, and a friend took me to see Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and it blew me away. I had been going to theater and I still love theater, but this movie opened my eyes to the world in a different way.

Have you expanded the numbers of films at the festival?
We’re showing about 100 films over the five days, about the same as last year.

Are you adding new locations?
Our main location is Guild Hall, which is now renovated. This will be the first time in three years that we can use it. Across the street is the c/o The Maidstone Hotel, also newly renovated. It’s now Swedish-owned and it will be our new festival center. We’ll be having a focus on Scandinavian films, too. We’ll have our traditional six screens at the UA movie theater here, and we’re using the newly renovated conference area at the First Presbyterian Church in the middle of East Hampton for the first time for our seminars. Then we have a theater in Montauk and a screen in Southampton, as we always do, and Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor for some of our A Conversation With… series.

What’s the line-up for those discussions?
We’ll have Sharon Stone, who will be this year’s mentor to the six young actors in our Breakthrough Performers program. This is a one of a kind program in North America. We have two from Europe and four from the US. And we will do a conversation with Alan Alda, who will be here join in a tribute to the Sloan Foundation, which has been working with us for 10 years. Another participant is Steve Buscemi, who is of course one of the faces of independent cinema worldwide. And Alec Baldwin will talk with Marty Bregman about what it means to produce films. Another guest may join them.

What will Sharon Stone do as mentor to the young actors?
She’ll have a very private lunch with them, just the six of them and her, and they’ll attend a number of events with her. She’ll be spending high quality private time with them.

What else is new?
We’re honoring the 75th anniversary of the New York Film Critics Circle. We’ll have a reception for them and a panel discussion. We’ll also recognize the 100th anniversary of the city of Tel Aviv with a festival of contemporary Israeli cinema. Based on the success of Israel at 60, which we did last year, we know this will be popular. We’re also planning special programs with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, which preserves important films in developing countries, and Mira Nair’s Maisha Foundation, which trains young people in filmmaking in Uganda.

How has the economy affected the festival?
Most of our grants have stayed in place. But corporate sponsorship has dropped off in a significant way. It’s a tough year. We’re making adjustments internally.

Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler became the highest profile among the films you showed last year. Did you see that coming?
Both were sold out. But it surprised a lot of people, how strong and how far Slumdog Millionaire went. Who knows what’s going to be a big success in the movie business? It’s so hard to tell.

I noticed that Alec Baldwin has been doing a lot for you at Guild Hall.
He’s done this summer screening series called SummerDocs. He loves film.

Is this part of your plan to expand the festival to year round activities?
This was the first step. This winter, I plan to bring smaller screenings to New York City. In the fall we’ll join Guild Hall for a program on bullying in schools.

Will your mother attend the festival?
It’s her 80th birthday on October 11, the middle of the festival, and I hope she’s going to make it.

Can you recommend some films, besides Aguirre?
I love old classic films—Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Alfred Hitchcock. And foreign films. I saw Five Minutes of Heaven, with Liam Neeson, at Sundance this year. It’s about reconciliation in a violent situation, and that’s so important now. Favorite films are so personal. It’s what touches you.

The 2009 Hamptons International Film Festival opens with The Greatest, accompanied by its producer-star Pierce Brosnan. A screening of Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, is the centerpiece film. Paper Man, shot in Montauk last year, stars Jeff Daniels, a possible attendee, as is Jon Hamm (Mad Men) who stars in Stolen Lives. Expected attendees also include Luke Wilson, Ethan Hawke, Neve Campbell, Rachel Dratch, Zach Gilford, Emmy Rossum, Cheryl Hines and Bryce Dallas Howard. Heath Ledger’s last film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a fantasy directed by Terry Gilliam in which Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell continue Ledger’s character, makes its US debut as it closes the festival. For information, visit http://www.hamptonsfilmfest.org.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.