Many things about the 24th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be familiar when it rolls into town this month. East End locals and visitors will again have access to a carefully curated batch of 140 feature-length and short films from all over the world. Theaters across the Hamptons and Sag Harbor will once more serve as festival venues. Cash prizes will be awarded. Sneak previews of Oscar-worthy films will be screened before and after panel discussions with filmmakers. And there will of course be plenty of chichi parties.
But one thing will be missing: Stuart Match Suna. Prior to stepping down this past August, Suna, who co-founded the five-day festival in 1993, had been chairman for the past 18 years. Under his steerage, HIFF evolved from a once-a-year festival into a year-round cultural organization dedicated to championing film. “Stuart has done such a beautiful job, but it was time for some of the other board members to step up and take the reigns,” said Anne Chaisson, HIFF executive director. Actor Alec Baldwin and attorney Randy Mastro, two longtime board members, have answered that call, assuming the roles of co-chairs. (Suna will continue as chair emeritus, thus he won’t be entirely missing.)
Baldwin and Mastro’s vision for the festival—and the organization as a whole—have undoubtedly been shaped by Suna, but the groundwork they will continue to lay is certain to be their own. “They are breathing new life into the institution by coming up with different ideas and different kinds of support,” Chaisson said.
Those ideas include honoring three-time Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton, who Baldwin reached out to personally, with the Career Achievement Award. The duo will also host a chairmen’s reception dinner on Oct 9 and bring the New York Philharmonic, where Baldwin serves as a board member, to East Hampton for an event focused on the art of the score.
But pomp and circumstance isn’t the only change a’coming. An additional series has been added to HIFF’s Signature Programs, which provide thought-provoking material often centered on real-life issues. This year, “Air, Land, & Sea” joins the slate, consisting of films that highlight the global problem of environmental conservation, clean water and natural resources.
“Water conservation and issues around it are really important to the community here,” HIFF artistic director David Nugent said. “So many people like to go to the Hamptons because they like to swim, go to the beach or go out on a boat, but unfortunately the water quality has really gone downhill lately. We are living it to death, so we wanted to highlight the issue.”
Nugent is also excited about the short nonfiction film category. It marks the first year that the HIFF Short Documentary Competition winner will qualify for Academy Award consideration without a standard theatrical run, joining the Narrative Short Competition winner. The prestige is mounting: three of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short were screened at the 2015 festival. But these are not the only crop of movies to have gone on to catch Oscar voters’ attention.
In all, the festival has screened the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner in seven of the last eight years, including this year’s winner, Spotlight. The 2015 lineup, selected by Nugent and his three-person team, received 36 Oscar nominations, including four for Best Picture and four for Best Actress. Films in the last eight editions of the festival have received over 200 total Oscar nominations. And in 2015, five took home Oscars.
The accolades could continue for HIFF selections based on some of the buzz-worthy headliners coming this year. Most notable is Loving, which stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the real-life interracial couple who helped end Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. The film had its world premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival in May. Locals will also have a keen interest in a special screening of Killing Season, a documentary series uncovering the details of the deaths of 10 sex workers discovered on Gilgo Beach.
But Nugent, entering his 10th year as the festival’s lead programmer, is adamant that bringing prestigious films to Long Island is not his only concern. “We do play bigger films that will eventually make their way out to mainstream audiences, but what we also really try and do is shine a light on a lot of films and filmmakers that otherwise will not really end up having a chance to screen in Long Island,” Nugent explained. “For a lot people attending, this will be their only chance to see those types of films. I’m very aware of that, so we are heavy on foreign films and highlighting locally oriented films.”
This year the festival’s predicted 25,000 attendees will be able to screen movies from countries including Australia (The Daughter), Argentina (The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis), Denmark (Those Who Jump), Lebanon (Submarine) and Italy (Irregulars). Meanwhile, HIFF’s “Views From Long Island” program features local filmmakers, the area’s unique landscapes or important social and political issues facing the region.
Veteran documentary filmmaker Marc Levin has screened three of his films at HIFF. In 2011, his Hard Times: Lost on Long Island, about the challenges facing highly skilled, well-educated Long Islanders who lost their jobs, won the Audience Award. Levin, who lives in New York City but has had a house on the South Fork for the last 15 years, said that while some of the festival’s big headliners draw more of the “so-called Hamptons crowd,” most of the 140 films that screen attract an interesting mix of people from all walks of life. “After Hard Times played, people in the audience got up and told their stories about gentrification or being priced out of the [South Fork] community,” Levin said. “It’s a huge issue there.”
Chaisson considers local participation in the festival hugely important. “At their root, film festivals are local community events,” she said. “We are a very small non-profit that happens to be in a very moneyed area. But most of our support is not from summer people, but from people who have homes here year round.”