Jeff Ross takes over as director of the Santa Cruz Film Festival this year.
The Santa Cruz Film Festival is a harsh mistress.
Festival President Elizabeth Gummere has watched it consume the lives of its all-volunteer staff, starting right out of the gate with founder Jane Sullivan in 2002, its very first year.
“In the beginning, she was managing all the volunteers, she was managing the money, she was managing the sponsorships, she was managing the programming for this long festival,” says Gummere. “That was ridiculous.”
That first year, Gummere had signed up as a volunteer because she was new to Santa Cruz, and a friend had suggested it’d be fun to do together. That friend bailed, but Gummere quickly became one of Sullivan’s top deputies.
“She always needed straight men around her,” says Gummere of the famously flamboyant Sullivan. “She needed somebody to say, ‘Let’s count the dollars and cents now.’ So that worked out really well, because I’m an accountant. So I said, ‘Okay, let me be that guy.’ Julian Soler was the programmer for the first two years, and he left, and then came back in 2008, and he and I were like her two assistant people.”
When Sullivan left after the 2009 festival, Gummere and Soler stepped up to run it. But then Gummere watched it take over Soler’s life, too, as he moved to New York, but continued to pour all of his time into keeping it going.
“For a long time, he was working at this job in New York, and totally phoning it in. And doing the film festival all day long at work!” she remembers. “He called me one night and said ‘Dude, this is my performance review: Why can’t Julian spell?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You write beautifully. Everything you do is so well crafted and well thought out.’ He said ‘No, not my work stuff. My festival work is A+. My work-work is ‘Julian needs remedial spelling classes.’…And then he got fired from that job, of course.”
They can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t easy when Soler had to get “a real job,” at the same time he was getting married, basically leaving the 10-day festival completely in Gummere’s hands.
It all came to a head last year.
“The 2012 festival was just riddled with problems,” she says. “Julian had one foot out the door, and he wasn’t able to come to the festival. Having his presence here used to help a lot, ’cause it was the two of us, and our board—you need a team. You can’t just have one person having to deal with everything. We were really too overextended.”
Everything seemed to be going wrong. The weather was perfect every single one of the festival’s 10 days in May, and attendance was down, while venue costs were up—about five times as much as in the SCFF’s first year, by Gummere’s estimation. And the volunteers that the festival had relied on for a decade were being pushed to their limit.
“We had two years in a row of projectionists just physically exhausted. God bless them,” she says. “Everybody was having to take a week off work, they were using their own vacation time doing the festival. It’s unreasonable to expect people to do that.”
When the SCFF board gathered to do a post-mortem on the 2012 festival last summer, Gummere made a confession: it had taken over her life, too.
“I own two businesses,” she says. “I work more than full time— all weekend, every evening, I work all the time. The festival is a hobby. It’s an unpaid board of director position. In the last 12 years, I’ve put thousands of hours and my own dollars into it as a board member.”
She told the SCFF board she simply couldn’t handle the festival anymore as it was configured. And to her surprise, they agreed with her that no one could. They decided on a radical re-working of the festival, shortening it from 10 days to four days, and moving it to fall.
This week, it makes its return in a form that Gummere believes will better serve both its audience and the people who go a little crazy—or a lot crazy—every year making it happen; it runs Nov. 7-10 at the Rio Theatre and other venues around Santa Cruz.
“We said, ‘Enough. Enough madness. We can’t do this to people.’ So we already knew we were going to shorten it considerably, we knew we were going to move it to November,” she says. “And then we just said, ‘Let’s simplify this sucker. Let’s make this thing survive.’”
An essential part of making the transformation was finding Jeff Ross, who takes over this year as festival director. Beginning in 1998, when he financed the first San Francisco Independent Film Festival on his own credit cards, Ross has built a regional film festival empire, including the San Francisco Documentary Festival (which he brought to Santa Cruz earlier this year in collaboration with SCFF) and the horror fan fave Another Hole in the Head Festival.
Coming from that background, Ross very much understood SCFF’s need to re-invent itself.
“His mantra from the beginning has been ‘keep it simple,’” says Gummere. “Somebody will say, ‘Should we do this and this and this?’ And he’ll say ‘Well, is it simple?’ And we’ll say ‘Well, no.’ And he’ll say ‘Then don’t do it.’”
Ross is pretty much the antithesis of everything you’d expect a successful film festival producer to be. The stereotype is that they’re wannabe filmmakers—all the attitude without any of the talent—but Ross is maybe the least pretentious film person you’ll ever meet.
“I have no artistic talent whatsoever,” he states flatly.
Nor does he hold film up as some mystical, ultimate art form. “I don’t even mind calling them movies,” he says. “The m-word doesn’t scare me.”
And it’s not even an ego thing, this push to make an ever-increasing number of film festivals succeed.
“I don’t necessarily need to be in the public eye. I’d rather be the guy in the back who pulls the rope up and down,” he admits.
So what is it then that drives Ross to keep getting himself involved in one festival after another?
“It probably has something to do with my background,” he says. “My mom is a painter, but she can’t survive without the gallery owner showing her work.”
Ross has become a curator himself, and that’s one mission he sees for film festivals in the 21st century: “There’s a lot of value in that curating, sifting through the material to find the gems.”
He started his career in the late ’90s, during an era he calls “after the rise of Indiewood, and before Fahrenheit 9/11”—meaning that independent film was already a pop phenomenon, but still very much independent, not yet a cash cow being endlessly exploited by the big studios.
But it was also during the rise of DVD, the first true film lover’s home video format. Its ability to showcase films in the way that the filmmaker intended them to be seen, and its explosion in popularity over several years, made DVD a catalyst for the rediscovery and restoration of countless films that had either been chopped and screwed on VHS, or considered too niche even to bother with. Studios emptied their vaults, and smaller producers showered attention on cult classics and also-rans alike to feed the endless demand for more content.
Suddenly, film festivals weren’t the only place audiences could discover rare films, and with the corresponding explosion in home theater, they weren’t even the only place those films could be seen on a (somewhat) big screen. Now that’s even more true, thanks to the availability of just about every movie in some form on the Internet.
So it may be time for the Ross Revolution. While traditional film festival organizers put their emphasis on championing films that may not otherwise be seen, he believes that even more important than the selections is the social interaction that events like the Santa Cruz Film Festival provide—the community-building that home viewing can’t offer, even with all the pixels in the world.
“My goal isn’t really to get films seen by as many people as possible,” he says. “My goal is to get people together for a shared experience.”
Toward that end, he’s turned the SCFF into more of a neighborhood event in mid-town Santa Cruz—a “festival corridor,” as he calls it.
“That was all him,” says Gummere. “We knew we were going to be at the Rio, and what he decided to do was build around that. He was the one who came up with the idea of approaching the Pacific Arts Complex across the street. And they’re like, ‘Oh, you know why that’s great is we teach kids to make videos.’ So they’re already doing something that is something we’re supporting, so we have this common thing. It’s going to be the first time that it’s been made into a theater, so we’ll see how it looks and feels.”
The “corridor” also includes the Crepe Place and the Santa Cruz Roller Paladium, which will hold various events, and the Del Mar and Museum of Art and History are participating as well.
“I’m picturing people talking on the sidewalk about the films they just saw,” says Ross.
It’s not that the films themselves aren’t important to Ross, but in the case of the SCFF, he flat-out refused to be involved in the programming, as a newbie living in Marin who still has a lot to learn about Santa Cruz.
“I don’t feel as an outsider that that is an appropriate role,” he explains. “I can’t say what Santa Cruz should be watching. “
He has a team of programmers for his San Francisco festivals, too, and he thinks the dynamic between the people choosing the films for any film festival is extremely important.
“What I really like is when I have multiple programmers who strongly dislike the other programmers’ films,” he says, with a bit of a mischievous tone.
Grummere is extremely pleased with the work of Logan Walker, who now oversees SCFF’s process of selecting films.
“He teaches film theory at the colleges, and he’s getting a Ph.D. in film. Even on paper, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” she says. “So he’s taken over as the programmer, and I think he really programmed well this year. I think everything is going to speak to Santa Cruz audiences, and Bay Area audiences.”
For Ross, that’s the baseline the festival promises in its very name. Talk about keeping it simple: “The Santa Cruz Film Festival, that’s all it is—it’s Santa Cruz, and it’s a film festival,” he says. “I really do want everybody in town to be able to pick up a program and find something they want. I think we’ve done that.”
Grummere is excited that despite cutting the scope of the festival (there are about two dozen films in this year’s SCFF, plus shorts, with the acceptance rate of submissions dropping from 15-20 percent to 10 percent, in her estimation), it will still showcase local filmmakers’ work alongside national and international selections.
“We don’t necessarily have a quota, but we do know that some sort of local character or angle is going to appeal to audiences,” she says. “Like opening night. Those guys are local, they have a ton of friends in town, it will appeal to a pretty wide cross-section of Santa Cruz.”
That film is Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, an autobiographical documentary by local co-directors Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. It will kick the festival off Thursday at the Del Mar, with MAH hosting SCFF’s opening night party afterward. Other festival parties include a disco inferno at the Roller Paladium on Friday, a Big Lebowski party at the Pacific Arts Complex on Saturday (with costume contest, music, bar, mini-bowling and, of course, the Coen brothers’ classic), and a Closing Night Party on Sunday at the Crepe Place featuring live music from Girls + Boys and Sad Robot.
Old Friends and New
For Ross, who first met Gummere and Walker in Austin last year at a festival for film festivals (yes, that is a thing that exists), taking on the festival offered not just a new challenge, but also a chance to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity about the differences between organizing a big-city festival and one in a place like Santa Cruz, which already has a lot of the community elements he is constantly banging his head against the wall trying to create in San Francisco.
“I’m personally attracted to Santa Cruz because of its size,” he says. “It’s not a big city, but it’s not a town. We’re not talking Mayberry.”
Gummere says the SCFF board is thrilled with Ross’ innovations. “I hope Jeff will stay with us forever and ever. We love Jeff. We’ve got really good people on the team.”
She doesn’t know how long she’ll last on that team, but she also knows that every time she thinks she’s out, the festival pulls her back in. Though it has consumed her life, too, she has a lot of memories that make her laugh out loud now—like the time she and Sullivan had to program the SCFF five months early so Sullivan could go on a trip to India.
“We locked ourselves into [Sullivan’s] house on Seabright for seriously like 48 hours straight. I don’t think we even showered. We sat on the couch, and it was freezing—it was January. We were under blankets, and we were sitting there freezing watching film after film after film. It was awful,” she remembers, laughing. “We got so loopy. There was some film with a catchy theme song, and we started singing it and dancing around. We were so insane. We watched so many films.”
Even if Grummere were to actually step down, she’s seen how the SCFF has become a lasting bond in the lives of the people who make it happen—not just in that crazy, all-consuming way.
“There were a bunch of really solid volunteers that hung out through the years, that we’re still friends with, fortunately. They’re still people who are involved; some of them have moved away, but they still check in—‘how’s the festival going?’ It’s a festival family,” she says. “That’s probably why I’ve stuck around. There are just all these friends, and we come back every year and keep it going.”