The Return of the Film Fest

Last year the Chicago International Film Festival was on the verge of dumping its founder, Michael Kutza, as artistic director. Now, on the eve of the festival’s 32nd annual edition, Kutza still appears to be in the director’s chair, but a new restructuring plan will force him to share control with two equal partners–an executive director and a development coordinator. “I have the final say on what appears at the festival,” Kutza says, “though I am working with more people who are providing input.”

Six weeks ago the festival hired Judy Gaynor as executive director. Gaynor had worked for the fest in the late 70s, but with this year’s opening set for October 10 she found her homecoming a bit rushed. “It’s hard to return to the festival with such a short lead time before this year’s event,” she admits.

Gaynor says her responsibilities will include “watching over what everyone does and making sure jobs that need to be done are taken care of.” She’s also been saddled with the tough job of rustling up last-minute sponsors. A week ago she traveled to the local offices of Eastman Kodak in Oak Brook, but when asked the outcome of her visit would only cross her fingers. A new development director will complete the festival’s triumvirate, but that critical post has yet to be filled.

Even with these changes, the organization is facing financial trouble. Board member Dan Coffey says a crushing $100,000 deficit from last year was the result of certain events “that weren’t well managed,” a problem that has plagued the festival for years. But a source close to the fest puts it more simply: “Not enough money was raised to cover expenses.”

Board member Keith Ferrazi, a consultant at Deloitte & Touche, headed the reorganization study earlier this year. The study examined the festival’s board structure, its programming, and its administrative operations with the intention of “reenergizing” the enterprise, according to Coffey. Among other things, the board will no longer have a chairman. Its last chairman, Ellis Goodman, reportedly led the charge to oust Kutza and resigned from the board after assisting on the reorganization. (Goodman did not return phone calls.) Coffey will act as chief spokesman for the board’s executive committee, but there will be no pecking order. All members will serve without titles. The full board now numbers 28, and two-thirds remain from last year’s conflict. Most of those who have opted to depart appear to have sided with Goodman. Longtime festival benefactor Albert Jay Rosenthal, a board member for two decades, decided to leave. “I believe Chicago needs a major film festival,” he says, “and I believed in what Ellis Goodman was pushing for.”

Ferrazi admits the board needs new members who can demonstrate the same kind of commitment that Rosenthal had. “The more those who care about the festival get involved, the more it will have a chance to change,” he says. The board wants members who can bring big bucks to help retire $350,000 in accrued debt. “We need to tap into the higher end of the philanthropic community,” Ferrazi says.

There are many who doubt that Kutza can share power, but Rosenthal says Gaynor “has a lot of integrity.”

This year’s organizers are promising a festival that will be different from previous offerings. It will be shorter–running only ten days, down from last year’s nineteen–and more tightly managed. The festival will screen only 100 films this year, many of which will be in English. That’s more than the annual New York Film Festival, which will screen only 29 features this fall, but far fewer than Toronto’s festival, which typically screens around 250 films in ten days.

Kutza says the Chicago festival is being scaled down in part to acknowledge that most people aren’t available to watch films 18 hours a day. “They go to work and come home and then look for something to do,” he says. The shift to more English-language films is a blatant attempt to appeal to suburban audiences, which Ferrazi maintains have been left out of previous festivals. “We believe the films at the festival should be both educational and entertaining,” he says. And the board hopes there will be fewer duds this year. “Part of the strategic plan to turn around the festival is to make sure it is a high-quality event,” explains Coffey.

As opening night closes in, observers are waiting to see if Kutza will accommodate the new strategic plan. At least one complains that newer board members are good at “talking the talk” and little more. Money, certainly, will be a key to survival. Last week, the festival issued a press release announcing a matching grant of up to $100,000 from an anonymous donor. A source indicated the grant is from former board chairman Ellis Goodman, who may be having a change of heart. In a confidential memo to board members last fall, Kutza said Goodman told him “we will never get funding from the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, corporate sponsors or Hollywood involvement so long as Michael Kutza continues as director.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Judy Gaynor, by D. Lee Landry (Captioned: Will the festival’s new director Judy Gaynor get the power she needs to balance the budget?).