Virginia Film Festival celebrates 25 years of changing with the times

Charlton Heston at the Virginia Film Festival in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival Charlton Heston at the Virginia Film Festival in 1991. Photo: Courtesy Virginia Film Festival

The phrase “calm like a duck” comes to mind. It is late September, 11 days before the announcement of the lineup for this year’s 25th Anniversary Virginia Film Festival, and festival director Jody Kielbasa and his staff are scrambling to pin down films and featured guests. Kielbasa is a pretty high-octane guy. Former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles describes him as “the equivalent of a five hour energy drink.”

Despite the RPMs, there’s a strong sense about him of polish, ease, and even something that might be called calm. But you also sense that, like the duck, he’s paddling pretty hard below the surface.

With the schedule announcement only a week and a half away, very little is set. “We’re going to have far and away the strongest schedule we’ve had in the four years I’ve been here,” says Kielbasa. But even with dozens of films already slated for inclusion, there isn’t much that can be nailed down until the special guests, actors, and directors (referred to in the business as “the talent”), start to commit. “At the moment we’re still chasing talent. And when I say ‘chasing’ I mean we’re talking with managers and agents and assistants to see how schedules work out and who can and cannot be here.”

Progress is excruciatingly slow, and, in fact, come announcement day there are still significant slots left to be filled. “When I was a kid in the back seat of the car,” Kielbasa confided, “I’d ask, ‘When will we be there?’ The answer was, ‘Over the next hill.’ Well, there’s always a next hill.”

Richard Herskowitz served as director of 13 festivals and programmed two before handing off the reins to Kielbasa in 2009. He uses a different mode of transportation to describe the stress of scheduling a world-class festival with film industry talent: “It’s like a locomotive coming at you. It gets closer and closer and scarier and scarier. The weeks leading up to it are incredibly intense, because when it comes to getting the headliner talent and the film premieres, that happens really close to the last minute.”

Ask Paul Wagner, documentary filmmaker and long-time friend of the festival, what it must be like to build the festival year after year and he just shakes his head and chuckles sympathetically: “I really feel sorry for them.”

Legislative legerdemain
That the state of Virginia has any official interest whatsoever in courting the film industry is due to a sneaky little piece of legislative sleight-of-hand conducted back in 1980 by a then four-year veteran of the House of Delegates. In the classic holiday film White Christmas, Bing Crosby says to Rosemary Clooney, “Oh come now, Miss Haynes. Surely you know that everybody’s got a little larceny operating in them.” He didn’t add, though he might have, that even politicians are not immune to a little well-meaning swindle every now and then.

Before he was governor, before he was attorney general, Gerald Baliles was a delegate from Henrico County. He tells the story with the gleam in his eye of an old campaigner who savors looking back on the occasional bit of mischief. Baliles had seen a study about the effects on the local economy of a movie that had been shot in Virginia Beach. He decided to sponsor legislation that would create an office to promote film production around the state, but the bill didn’t pass. So, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Baliles, in his words, “slipped it in the back of the budget, in the fine print.” The budget was passed without anyone noticing that a small new program had been created. “And so,” said Baliles, “the Virginia Film Office was born.”

Seven years later, during his term as governor, Baliles read another article about film festivals as a boon to tourism. This time he needed no shell game to make something happen. As he tells it: “I thought of the idea and talked to the Kluges. John Kluge [billionaire media tycoon and Charlottesville resident] owned Orion Pictures. Earl Hamner [creator of “The Waltons”] was a fishing friend at the time, and it struck me that he could be useful. I asked the Kluges to host a reception, and they offered cash and connections.”

In this milestone year, Baliles is being honored by the festival with the Founder’s Award in recognition of the essential role his political clout played in its creation. The joint recipient of the award, the woman whose cash and connections were also essential in getting the festival off the ground, has her own story to tell about the founding.

Success has many parents
Patricia Kluge, co-recipient of the Founders Award, was patroness of the festival throughout its early years. She too was there at the inception, though her memory of how the festival came together differs significantly from Baliles’.

“I had a big house party at Albemarle,” said Kluge. “And David Brown [producer of The Sting, Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon] and his wife Helen Gurley Brown [author of Sex and the Single Girl and long-time editor of Cosmopolitan magazine] were staying there. At dinner I was asking David what did he think would be the kind of event to attract the right kind of tourists to Charlottesville. And he said, ‘Why don’t you have a film festival?’ And so I thought…if we did an American film festival, that would be very good at the University…. We called some friends in Hollywood and they thought it was a brilliant idea. Then we felt that we needed to have the Governor involved.”

Bob Gazzale, now head of the American Film Institute, served as the festival’s inaugural full-time director from 1989 to 1991. Before that, he had been present at the initial planning meeting hosted by then-University President Robert O’Neil: “They gathered the titans of American film for that very first conversation. It was Jack Valenti [long-reigning president of the Motion Picture Association of America]. It was Jeannie Firstenberg who ran the American Film Institute for 27 years. It was Lewis Allen who was a wildly successful Broadway producer, but also a great filmmaker and a graduate of the University…. They had the best minds at the table.”
When asked about the different stories told by the founders, Gazzale laughs. “Well…success has many fathers. And mothers. It was a marriage of opportunity. There is no question that Gerald Baliles was a driving force, and it would not have happened without him. I can say the same of Patricia. And I can say the same of Robert O’Neil. Those three parties came together and said there is an economic development angle, there is an academic angle, and then Patricia arrived with ‘let’s not forget that the movies are fun.’”

High profile, low key
The early years of the festival saw Patricia Kluge’s money, connections and penchant for fun combine with the University’s academic prestige to lure a significant roster of alumni supporters in the industry. The result was an explosion of old Hollywood glamour in a sedate University town. Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum all attended in the early years. The roster also sported a parade of younger artists, writers, and industry names: Robert Altman, Nick Nolte, Norman Mailer, Jerzy Kosinski, John Sayles, Jane Alexander, Horton Foote.

Independent Producer Mark Johnson (Diner, the Narnia films, “Breaking Bad,” and Best Picture Academy Award winner for Rain Man), himself a University alumnus, was a participant at the inaugural festival in 1988. The next year, he was tapped to be a member of the Advisory Board, which he has now chaired for more years than he can recall. Johnson is probably responsible for bringing more films and industry players to the festival than anyone else. His stalwart service as the festival’s primary industry champion over the past 25 years is also being formally recognized this year with a proclamation from Governor Bob McDonnell.

Johnson recalls the black tie gala at the Kluge estate that first year: “It was a grand affair. In fact, there were helicopters bringing in people from D.C. As you may have heard, that festival almost bankrupted any future festival because it was so expensive. It was fun to try to do it on a grand scale, but the festival stepped down in its ambitions substantially since then, and I think, quite frankly, to the benefit of the spirit of the festival.”

Without abandoning its appeal to Hollywood names and high profile films, this downscaling of the opulence factor turned out to be a key to the festival finding its niche. “It’s not trying to be one of the big flashy festivals,” said Johnson. “It has its own personality, which is more quiet.” And this has a great deal of appeal to the artists who are contemplating coming here. “It’s very low key, no one is trying to sell them anything. No one is trying to take advantage of them. There are no flashbulbs in their faces.”

Charlottesville filmmaker Paul Wagner, himself the winner of an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, agreed: “Why spend a lot of effort trying to make it the hip indie festival when Sundance and South by Southwest have that locked up? Why make it a big press event when New York and Toronto have that locked up? Why not take what you have that’s unique and expand on that?”

Nothing endures but change
The Virginia Film Festival has survived its first quarter century through a potent mix of star power, ego, heaps of goodwill from volunteers, donors and audiences, intellectual rigor, and sheer enthusiasm for the art of the cinema. It has had founders like Baliles, Kluge, and O’Neil who have put their stamp on its identity. And it has had a number of directors, some of whom served for only a year or two, but three of whom—Gazzale, Herskowitz, and Kielbasa—have presided over and ushered in most of its defining moments.

Gazzale’s Virginia Festival of American Film, under the sponsorship of Patricia Kluge, was awash in the glamour of old Hollywood. Under Richard Herskowitz, the festival was challenged to become more fully a part of the University, and he dropped its emphasis on American film in an effort to explore broader themes. Herskowitz also broadened the reach of the festival in another sense—inaugurating an expanded series of festivities, events, panels, and happenings that reached out to communities outside the University.

Jody Kielbasa, has continued that effort. One of his first acts was to drop the focus on an annual theme. “It’s really opened things up,” he said. “We still screen classic films, but we try to encase them in a purpose.” The festival has been beefed up to well over 100 films, making that last minute imminent train wreck scramble for talent all the more harrowing. But as a result, in the past few years the festival has shattered its attendance records. “In screening 100-plus films we can reach every segment of the community with a subject. We can do things on sexuality and religion and politics and art…you name it. We can create partnerships within the community to explore these issues, and a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to the festival start coming.”

Bob Gazzale, present at the founding and still active as an advisor, has had the best seat in the house for evaluating the major changes the festival has gone through. The festival that he helped create, the one focused on American film and on an annual theme, is gone now, but he sees that only as good and inevitable and right: “Nothing endures but change, particularly when you’re celebrating an art form. If you don’t change the conversation occasionally, you’ll be lost in time.”

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