These days, CineVegas is among the fastest-growing film festivals in the country, named by Variety in 2006 as one of the Top 5 “festival gems” and attracting more and more high-profile celebrities, filmmakers and press coverage each year. Ten years ago (December 10-13, 1998), the first CineVegas was held at Bally’s, with satellite events at the Huntridge and Gold Coast.
Four days instead of today’s 10, with 18 feature films compared to this year’s 45, it nevertheless established a precedent for glitzy premieres, hot parties and a mix of mainstream and indie sensibilities. Founded by Joshua Abbey (who now runs the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival) and Amie Williams (a documentary filmmaker now living and working in LA) and bolstered by the participation of Hollywood producers Michael and Michele Berk (he created Baywatch; she ran the production company Lotus Pictures), CineVegas 1998 was both a labor of love and a foundation for the future.
Creating a festival
Joshua Abbey (festival co-founder, executive director/program director): I perceived that there was an opportunity to pursue and establish a major international film festival for Las Vegas. The preparation for the first CineVegas required three years of dedication and hard work performed with support from a few like-minded individuals including filmmakers Bob Wiemer and Amie Williams. A 501 (c) 3 nonprofit named Reel Las Vegas Inc. was formed, through which, as the initiator and executive director of CineVegas, I raised over $300,000 of in-kind donations and $200,000 in cash sponsorships from Nevada corporations, businesses and individuals, in order to launch the festival’s first year in December, 1998.
Amie Williams (festival co-founder, vice president of programming): I had moved to Vegas, and I was working on a film and sort of lamenting, like a lot of people, the lack of independent cinema and foreign cinema. At the time, in the late ’90s, there wasn’t any independent scene at all. [Josh] was working at the library at the time, and he had done a really interesting festival about adaptations from literature. I read about it in the paper, I looked him up, and then we just started chatting, and we said, “Hey, let’s try to do a film festival here.”
Michele Berk (festival executive producer): I was scouting a movie in Las Vegas, and Amie Williams was recommended to me as a good line producer, somebody who knew the ins and outs of shooting in Las Vegas. And I met with her, and really liked her, and she told me about this dream that she and Josh Abbey [had], to put together a nonprofit film festival in Las Vegas, and would I be interested in coming on and helping them put this together using my Los Angeles—Hollywood—contacts. It just was a good cause.
Michael Berk (founding board member): We ended up going to somebody’s house and having a meeting, and they were saying that they had this idea, this dream of having a film festival. But they didn’t really have the facilities or connections in Hollywood, or, frankly in Vegas, that we had.
Williams: It started kind of small. We built a board, just met in my living room in the beginning. People that were attracted to it were either people that had worked in the film industry, or, if you look at our original board, Andrew Molasky was on the board, Paul Bodner was sort of a local cinephile, Robert Wiemer was a television producer who had just recently moved to Vegas, we had an entertainment attorney, and we had the Berks. They were very influential in the beginning, too, very helpful.
Mary Vail (vice president of publicity): I was representing Michael and Michele here in Las Vegas. She at the time was Mrs. United States, and she had asked me to represent her, PR-wise, because she did a lot of charity in town. They said, “Look, some people are talking about doing a film festival. Of course we’d like to see if we can make this thing happen.” So they said, “Would you do the PR for it? But you have to do it all for free, because there’s no money there.”
Michael Berk: The first thing we had to do was find a venue. We had a social relationship with Paul Pusateri at [Bally’s]. We went over there and kind of pitched him on the idea. And they didn’t have theaters or anything, but they had a great showroom. And Paul got it, and said he would love to be involved, and we talked about how we could convert that showroom into a theater.
Vail: We had to go out and beg for stuff. We had to build a theater. There were no theaters in town that would give up their time for it.
Michele Berk: Bally’s really, really stepped up. I must say, no one else wanted us. The big hotels thought it would be more of a pain than really worth all the stuff they had to go through to accommodate us.
Vail: They approached anybody in this town who had dollar figures in front of their name. The Berks invested a lot of their own money into it.
Robin Greenspun (founding board member): My husband Danny and I were asked by Joshua Abbey and Paul Bodner, the festival director and board president, respectively, to become sponsors the first year. Mostly, they needed publicity, which we were able to give them through the family publications.
Francisco Menendez (UNLV film department chair): It was a truly tremendous surprise to me when I went to the press conference at Bally’s, and they said that all proceeds from the film festival would benefit the film program at UNLV. And they hadn’t really said anything to me about that. So I’m sitting there, and my jaw dropped, and I thought, “Wow, this is really going to have a huge effect on our program.” Well, of course, it’s a nonprofit—they make no money.
Abbey: My original concept for the festival was to focus on the significant role that film festivals played in relation to the development of cinema. This focus was achieved by acquiring the participation of festival directors from important film festivals, who were each asked to choose a film to showcase at CineVegas, that had previously been shown at their festival but that they believed deserved more critical praise and attention.
Jeannette Catsoulis (film critic, Las Vegas Weekly): My main memories are of how much work Joshua Abbey and Amie put into it. I was most impressed by the festival of festivals, which I think was Josh’s idea, and how committed they were to trying to get the best of the major festivals to Las Vegas.
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- Slow and steady: Persistence pays off for UNLV’s Francisco Menendez
- Beyond the Weekly
Star Trek beams into Vegas
Abbey: The goal for CineVegas was to become an established annual venue for major Hollywood studios’ world premieres that would guarantee the presence of celebrities, members of the film industry and the media. This goal was realized in the first year with the acquisition of the world premiere of Paramount Picture’s new Star Trek film Insurrection.
Michael Berk: Michele and I both had a relationship with [Paramount chair] Sherry Lansing and [her husband, director William] Friedkin; we had worked together on a project. And another friend of mine who I’d known for years was the woman who put on all the premieres, all the premiere parties and all that other stuff. We found out that they were coming out with Star Trek, and it was a big deal. And through our friendship and relationship with Sherry Lansing we were able to get them to agree to give us the Star Trek premiere, the world premiere.
Michele Berk: I think why [Josh and Amie] wanted us to come in is, when you’re trying to go out for sponsorship, we needed a carrot, we needed a big world premiere. … I think we all knew that we needed some razzle-dazzle to get the city to pay attention to what we were trying to do.
Catsoulis: In my opinion, and this is only me, Star Trek: Insurrection has no place at a film festival. That’s not a film-festival film. Film-festival films are supposed to be films that you’re not going to get a chance to see normally. That’s what I thought they were going to move toward, and that’s what I thought it should be. I know that Amie and Josh were very committed to independent film and foreign film.
Williams: I think [Josh and I] both knew we needed an opening-night film that was a splash.
Michael Berk: We felt it was going to take Hollywood to drive the festival, to get people’s attention. Yes, it’s nice to have local filmmakers and short films and independent filmmakers and people submit stuff. I think Amie and Josh were more into the independent-filmmaker thing, but it was a combination. … I started basically calling everybody I knew at the studios to try to get as many studio films as we could.
Menendez: The Star Trek thing was huge. That really made it seem like it was—talk about not your normal film-festival fare, but it certainly got everybody’s attention. It was a good idea, but it had a price tag.
Michael Berk: We actually had satellite coverage, international satellite coverage here. We had a big red carpet thing that went through Bally’s, because the outside of Bally’s had a real nice walkway that came right off the Strip. … We had a plane—we got Paramount to give us their plane—and flew up John O’Hurley, and Rick Fox, who was a Laker at the time, and Gary Busey, who was a kick, and a few other celebrities. Again, we didn’t necessarily get the A-list celebrities that they’re getting these days, but we got who we could.
Menendez: The apocryphal story is that Paramount charged $50,000 for bringing in the Star Trek cast.
Barbara Scherzer (Las Vegas correspondent, Variety): I knew early on that they weren’t going to let the press go to Star Trek, and I knew I wanted to write a couple stories and I would probably just break even [buying a festival pass], but I didn’t care.
Menendez: The Star Trek party was interesting, because our [Captain] Picard had a very muscular guy with him. So all these people had paid a lot of money to go and talk to him, and this guy would actually just push people away when Patrick Stewart obviously showed no interest.
Scherzer: When I got to the party, the stars were cordoned off. A colleague of mine was very friendly with Patrick Stewart, so I was allowed to go in the inner circle, but there were bodyguards standing there. They didn’t like it if you were even saying hello to these people, and they’re watching what you say. … Of course I didn’t have a pad pulled out—you don’t want to get them upset. I just talked for more than two minutes to Jonathan [Frakes], and I was ushered out.
A bevy of awards
Vail: I think our first honorees—I don’t know if this is probably the best way to approach it—was, “Who has a great history and a great reason to honor, as well as the ability to get here for the event?” … Most of the people that were honored were associates of Michael and Michele, I would say, if not 100 percent. But they all had incredible, incredible backgrounds, so they were definitely award-worthy.
Anthony Del Valle (film critic, Las Vegas CityLife): The highlight to me was the fact that [Gods and Monsters] was shown before it was even released, and I thought, “Wow, this really is a special movie.” But before Gods and Monsters, Lynn Redgrave—the only thing I can remember that she did of note was Georgy Girl in 1966. So forget Gods and Monsters, but they were giving her a lifetime achievement in film award. And she herself said when she made her speech—I forgot the words she used, but she just said that she felt it was kind of silly since she wasn’t known for her film work. I thought that’s great that she said that. What I’m trying to say is it was obvious they were giving awards to whoever agreed to attend.
Vail: You always need the person to come out and hand out the awards, so [my daughter] carried them, you know, like you do at the Academy Awards. She was the one who walked out and carried the awards. And she had such a good time. She was really little—she was 12 years old.
Local filmmaking spotlight
Doug Jablin (local video artist and filmmaker): [Producer] Tony [Bondi] and I were really good friends with Josh. He knew about the Burning Man video [Apotheosis of Crimson Rose] and asked if we wanted to put it in. … For us, it was kind of a continuation of what we had been doing, because I had made Burning Man videos for four years, so this wasn’t the first one I did. And usually what we would do is we would show them at the coffeehouses—pretty much wherever we could do a showing, we would do a showing of it. So it wasn’t anything new, but it was a better venue to be able to do it, a larger venue.
Benjamen Purvis (UNLV film student): I think I heard about [CineVegas] maybe in October or November of 1998, and that UNLV was going to have its own program and everything, at the Huntridge—everyone else’s was screening at Bally’s. All the students knew about it at least, but none of us submitted—it was just Menendez chose the ones that were going to go. Along with mine, there were a few other of my classmates’.
Menendez: The UNLV showcase at the Huntridge was unfortunately marred by—we had a tight, one-hour showcase, and then we had some students who had done a very long film go around me and get their film screened. And so we had this nice one-hour showcase, and then we had this very long 20-to-30-minute film, which felt like it was two hours. … And it was so long, and the Huntridge folks didn’t even know that we were going to be around that long, and by the time everybody got out, everybody was gone. There was nobody.
Purvis: By the time it was all done, we just sat there in the dark, because the festival organizers had left; I guess it was because of some booking thing where they had booked too many to be shown at ours or something. In any case, we all just sat there in the dark until someone found a light switch at the Huntridge, which took a long time. It probably seemed longer than it was, but it seemed like we sat there for five minutes in the dark not being able to get up because it was literally pitch black.
Punks, kids, Tarantino and more
Vail: [Penelope Spheeris’] The Decline of Western Civilization [Part III]—that had to run at a specific time, over at the Gold Coast. Imagine this: That movie was really far out. At the same time, one of the rodeos was going on. And the Gold Coast is like the huge cowboy place at that time. So you had cowboy hats, boots, very all-American kids—and then you had the rebellious kids, in the same place at the same time. These kids were so rebellious—in the theater itself, it was so packed that it was over-occupied, fire hazard definitely—but these kids smoked during the film. They were like, “We’re not abiding by any rules at all.”
Williams: We had this high school program where we invited high school kids to come down and participate in the festival. We reached out to Elko. So it was kind of a state-wide thing. It was great. They were there for the whole week; they slept over in a toy store.
Catsoulis: I loved Gods and Monsters. It was one of my favorite films of that year. And it’s also not the kind of film that would you would typically show to a mainstream audience. It was a little bit riskier. I think that’s the only thing that was on the program that actually made a kind of a splash that year, that became bigger.
John Daly (founding board member, festival emcee): There were some really good screenwriting seminars. It was fascinating to listen to some accomplished screenwriters to see the tricks of the trade. I was real interested in story structure more than anything else, about how people are putting together movies and what some of the different systems people use [are] and how to get the creative process going. … I really enjoyed what I thought were some of the technical aspects of filmmaking that I thought we brought. It wasn’t just, “Let’s watch a film and have a big party and drink later.”
Jablin: The one that stood out was there was the Saturday Night Live comedian [Julia Sweeney] who had a movie [God Said, Ha!]. That was pretty cool, because she had some kind of medical problem, I remember, and the movie was about that, but it was intermixed with the comedy stuff, so it had that dual kind of approach, where you’re laughing but at the same time you feel pity because of what she’s going through.
Scherzer: When Quentin Tarantino showed up for Julia Sweeney, that was really amazing, and that’s the best entertainment can be, because she was talking about her experiences of course with cancer, and I just remember that, and I also think the room was pretty full.
Del Valle: That’s one of the films that I thought film festivals ought to do. I talked to [Tarantino] personally. I remember that. That was a thrill. I don’t usually get starstruck, but I was starstruck when I saw him. I guess because he comes off so unassuming; he really seems like a regular guy.
The perils of the organizer/filmmaker
Vail: David Hasselhoff was in [Legacy], a movie that Michele Berk had produced in the Philippines, and he screened that there. While it didn’t get super rave, rave, rave reviews, it was still fun, because you had the hype of the Baywatch.
Michele Berk: I was very proud to have Legacy in the lineup. It was screened by the board and voted on, and it wasn’t like, “Oh, well, it’s Michele’s movie, let’s stick it in the festival.” I was proud that it cut the mustard.
Del Valle: What particularly got me was that the picture that was really being promoted was a David Hasselhoff movie. I just remember everywhere I saw [the Berks], which was everywhere, they would talk about this big event coming up, which was the David Hasselhoff film. … A lot of us went there because it was—at least I remember it being—like the centerpiece of the festival, and it was a joke.
Scherzer: I didn’t feel [Legacy] belonged in CineVegas, anyway. Because the caliber of that film didn’t match some of these other things you saw. Amie’s film [Stripped and Teased: Tales of Las Vegas Women] even wasn’t bad.
Michele Berk: Legacy still is one of the most-run movies on HBO.
Catsoulis: I remember that [Stripped and Teased] was really well-received. People liked that a lot. Of course it was a very Vegas movie, but it was also a very feminist movie.
Purvis: I from the very beginning saw it as a festival created by somebody who couldn’t get their movie in other festivals and said, “Then I’ll start my own.” And I don’t know if there’s any truth to that.
Williams: I never thought of it that way, because my films have gotten into major film festivals in the past, so I never thought of it as a place like, “Oh, I’ll make a festival for my films.” I understand that that was a great criticism.
What’s it all mean?
Scherzer: I thought [the festival] was a good idea. I didn’t know if it would work, because so many things come to Vegas and don’t work, and that was my initial thought.
Del Valle: Like so much in Vegas, I thought it would come and go. I didn’t really have any particular belief in it, and that had nothing to do with CineVegas; it was just the fact that it was the first year for a film festival, and what are the odds that it’ll continue, and all this stuff.
Catsoulis: When you consider that you’ve got a lot of people, most of whom have never done a festival before, for what they pulled off—I think people outside festivals just don’t understand the work it takes.
Jablin: [Josh] had a really bad track record going into it. He had a been kind of a guerrilla in the mainstream world trying out different things. Then he goes ahead and pulls this off.
Daly: I think what CineVegas has done is it’s made a more sophisticated moviegoer here.
Michael Berk: It’s like a writer sitting down at a blank page. It’s easier to rewrite something once you get that first draft done—the hardest thing is the first draft. And I feel like those first years were the first draft. Everything wasn’t perfect, but we got it going, and established the name, gave it credibility.
Michele Berk: What we did the first year in eight months with six people in Amie Williams’ garage, I don’t know anybody else that’s done anything like that.