George Clooney’s Hub stopover this past Saturday night — to present Jerry Weintraub (producer of Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels) with a Lifetime Achievement Award — was designed to draw attention to the 23-year-old Boston Film Festival (BFF), still struggling to find its center after the independent Massachusetts Film Bureau’s Robin Dawson took over from festival founders Mark Diamond and Susan Fraine three years ago.
By many accounts, the $250-a-head tribute dinner at the InterContinental Boston hotel was a poorly organized affair, but any problems there paled in comparison with the debacle of the festival’s opening the previous night. Diamond and Fraine were roundly criticized during their 20-year tenure for failing to establish a clear focus for Boston’s annual celebration of cinema, but at least they adhered to their mission of presenting movies to the public.
As of this past Thursday, Dawson’s film festival didn’t even have an opening-night film. Rather, a look at the festival’s schedule on its ever-evolving Web site, bostonfilmfestival.org (which, a week earlier, had contained no schedule whatsoever), revealed only an opening-night party to be held at 33 Restaurant & Lounge at 10 pm. By early Friday afternoon, the schedule had been updated, now mentioning a “7:30 opening night film,” dubiously listed as “TBA.” A subsequent e-mail sent from a publicist at Allied Advertising invited members of the press to the mystery movie, finally disclosed to be the 2007 Sundance Film Festival hit Grace is Gone, starring John Cusack as a father of two coming to grips with the loss of his soldier-wife in Iraq. An Oscar campaign is anticipated for Cusack’s performance, so choosing it to open the BFF could only raise the fest’s visibility.
Visibility, however, remained elusive. For their part, Allied, which handles the lion’s share of movie publicity in town and knows who to call, tried to get the word out. They distributed passes to the film that generously offered free admission for up to four people per pass, in hopes of filling the AMC Loews Boston Common’s 276-seat auditorium. (Individual tickets were also sold at the theater's box office for the comparably exorbitant cost of $10.) By 7:30 pm, though, the theater was at only half-capacity.
At 8 pm, already a half-hour past the scheduled show time, Dawson sheepishly announced that the film wouldn’t begin until director James Strouse (who had mistakenly been driven from New York to Tremont Street . . . in Quincy) arrived to introduce it. Fifteen minutes later, Strouse appeared and said a few words. Then, the house lights dimmed and his film began playing. Due to the last-minute nature of the booking, a film print was apparently unavailable, so the BFF projected GraceIsGone from a beta tape — without sound.
Forty-five minutes later, with still no movie to be seen (and certainly not to be heard), organizers wheeled in free popcorn and bottled water to placate the curiously calm audience, as technicians fruitlessly attempted to correct the problem. With Dawson seemingly AWOL, John Michael Williams, the BFF’s creative director, offered stalwarts the chance to attend the evening’s fête in lieu of the film.
Additional parties were scheduled to run throughout the festival. Any film screenings, however, remained to be seen. Or perhaps not.