A look back on HIFF’s beginnings and where it’s headed

A Talk With Stuart Suna, HIFF’s Chairman Emeritus

Stuart Suna, third from left, at last year’s Hamptons International Film Festival, flanked by co-chairman Randy Mastro, Julie Andrews, and Patrick Stewart. Independent/Courtesy Frank Publicity

Stuart Suna, founder of Silvercup Studios and East Hampton resident, was part of the ragtag team which, 26 years ago, thought, “Hey, let’s put on a film festival!”

Okay, that’s not really how it happened. And the board of directors, headed today by co-chairs Alec Baldwin and Randy Mastro, is anything but ragtag. It is a passionate and enthusiastic bunch dedicated to screening indie films and spotlighting rising filmmakers.

Suna took a few minutes to speak with The Independent on the eve of this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival.

You were right there at the very beginning. What was the impetus for starting a film festival in the Hamptons, and what were some of the obstacles to overcome?

The festival was created by a woman, a casting director named Joyce Robinson — she literally cast the board of the film festival. It was her idea. This was her plan. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, and she had to leave before the festival started. The ones who are still on the board from the very beginning are me, Toni Ross, and Joe Zicherman.

One of the original concepts — for horse shows, art shows, the film festival — was economic development for the local community in the off season. I mean, the Hampton Classic is not exactly the off season, but it’s become a huge economic generator. Initially, the idea was to create the film festival, not for Columbus Day weekend, where it is now, but for the weekend after Columbus Day, to give a double bump to the hotels and restaurants and the rest of the community. It’s such a beautiful time out there. [Editor’s note: HIFF was moved to Columbus Day weekend in 2009 in order to maximize attendance over a three-day weekend, and was done after consultation with the event’s sponsors and underwriters.]

As far as obstacles, we were so successful during the first five years, that hotels started raising their winter rates to summer rates, so we lost the advantage of having affordable hotel rooms. And it took us many years to operate in the black, for the film festival.

What are some of your greatest HIFF triumphs?

I can give a few. In the very beginning, the New York Times did a two-page story about the 1000 festivals in North America, and which were the Top Ten, and which one of the Top Ten stars in the sky was going to be knocked out for the Hamptons Film Festival to become one of them, with Steven Spielberg being our honorary advisor. It was a challenge — that was actually before we even had the first festival!

And we had a great first festival. Steven Spielberg and Marty Scorsese was our “surprise” conversation. (Laughs.) And that helped in many ways.

What are some of the biggest shifts in focus?

We’ve been consistent from the beginning. There hasn’t been much of a shift. We’ve always been about promoting independent film. The big shift has been in the industry — with so many of these independent films now being nominated, and winning, Academy Awards.

Early on, we had Slumdog Millionaire in our lineup; no one had any idea about this movie, and their idea was to launch it in film festivals around the country. Which turned out to be, obviously, a huge success.

Currently, with David Nugent’s leadership as artistic director, we typically have anywhere from 30 to 50 films that go on to get Oscar nominations and anywhere from eight to a dozen Oscar winners. I believe we’re the only festival in North America that’s had the winner for Best Film eight years in a row. I believe last year we had the winning film in all major categories — Best Documentary, Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, and on and on.

You stepped down in 2015 and are now chairman emeritus along with Toni Ross. Why?

Toni was chair for five years, then I was chair for 18 years. I was trying to find a successor; you need fresh ideas. So, I haven’t stepped away, I’m still completely engaged and involved in the festival. Now there’s co-chairs Alec Baldwin and Randy Mastro, two great friends and great co-chairs. I’m very happy and proud of that.

Tell me about the HIFF team and what you’ve learned from them.

Anne Chaisson, our executive director, has really been the key element for us becoming a not-for-profit operating in the black; she’s done an incredible job overseeing the festival and managing it. And David Nugent has the eye and the sense to pick great independent films. I really applaud both David and Alec Baldwin for bringing great documentaries to the forefront, both in the summer programs and this weekend. I’ve learned so much from these films, and we can all learn and grow from them, and to see how entertaining they can be.

Going forward, what do you visualize?

That the festival, which has been very grounded in the local community, both in its education programs and events like the Summer Docs documentary film program, that it can expand to be a year-round festival. What we’ve wanted, right from the very beginning, is our own bricks-and-mortar building, where we can continue growing, and bringing to the local community great education about film. Not just seeing the great films, but opening up people’s eyes to what great film is about, and how you can learn from it. We’ve been working on that for a while.

bridget@indyeastend.com