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HUNTER TODD: THE MAN BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE HOUSTON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
"This is the biggest film festival in the United States—more entries, more people than any other film festival in America, but yet the smallest audience of any film festival in America. Nobody cares, nobody comes. It's amazing." The touch of bitterness in Todd Hunter's statement goes down easily. His genuine warmth and easy friendliness would put anyone at ease, and once wrapped in the magic of his hospitlaity, it is difficult to take any negativity personally.
It is not difficult, however, to understand why Houston's lukewarm acceptance of the Houston International Festival is taken so personally by this quietly dynamic man. His career has been marked with the kind of success that suggests that failure is not so much his enemy as it is a very mysterious stranger.
When J. Hunter Todd came to Houston to establish the Houston International Film Festival, he arrived with 11 years of unqualified success as a professional director of international film festivals, preceded by a career as a film producer and director with 117 international awards. For 22 years he has been working in cooperation with the State Department to produce international festivals worldwide. He has brought festivals to Moscow, Cairo, the Virgin Islands (where he was working just prior to coming to Houston), and even to Iran "before the fall."
No doubt, in his mind, it is not enough to build the biggest and best in the country. To make this success of the Houston International Film Festival complete, he wants it to be recognized and patronized by Houstonians. "A prophet has no honor in his own land," he said. It was a philosophical statement, but the voice tone was one of quiet struggle, not quiet resignation.
In 1979 Todd was invited to come to Houston by a group headed by Samuel Bronston, a bigger-than-life Hollywood legend who now lives in Houston. Bronston, described by Todd as "the last of the giant dinosaurs of old Hollywood," produced a number of the great Hollywood spectaculars, including King of Kings, El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire, and Circus World.
"Every major first class city in the world has a film festival," Todd explained. "I'm talking about London and New York and San Francisco—everyone. It startled me that Houston did not have one 11 years ago, and now I see why. There is a tremendous amount of apathy in the arts here. And not just us. The symphony and the ballet and the opera all have big deficits and big financial problems." As a nonprofit agency with a very small budget, everyone in the Houston festival office is a volunteer. Todd's Executive Assistant receives a small stipend for the three months leading into the festival—February, March and April—and Todd receives a small stipend as director. "The festival is here because I'm in the unique position of being able to donate my time and services to it," Todd declared. "The Dallas film festival has a budget five times ours."
His frustration at being unable to launch the Houston Film Festival as an integral part of Houston's "big events" is obvious, and his conversation repeatedly returns, in mystified irritation, to the festival's 11-year history of being unable to attract the attention of the Houston community.
Speculation that the festival has not been promoted met his immediate objection. "We can't get any better [media coverage]. The Chronicle and The Post give us full color sections the week before the festival, and they give us daily full page coverage every day of the festival. The radio and TV stations cover us. We can't do any more than we do."
Todd does feel, though, that many Houstonians don't fully understand that the festival is open to the public. Tickets for individual films are as little as $2.50 for a matinee, and a "film buff" pass for all screenings is available for $75. Tickets to a premiere are only $5.00 each. For the really serious film goer (or star watcher), a "VIP" pass at $150 includes admission to private parties and the awards night ceremonies.
In past years the Houston International Film Festival has introduced to the United States foreign films such as La Cage aux Folles and Diva. Other successful films that have premiered at the festival include Salvador, Waiting for the Moon and Blood Simple.
There are no simple answers to the festival's dilemma. It is certainly a valuable addition to Houston's entertainment and cultural environment. Communicating its value to the community seems to be at the center of the difficulty.
Central to communication, and essential to facilitating change, is an understanding and, more important, a respect for how things are. So polish your belt buckle, Mr. Todd. Pull on your boots, set your Stetson on your noble brow and head out to the rodeo. As the new father of a native-born Texan, perhaps you will appreciate the therapeutic value of viewing Giant a few dozen times (remember the movie about the genteel Virginian who married the Texas rancher?).
I attended a great motivational seminar some years ago directed by Jim Rohn, one of the golden-throated many who have made a business out of telling others how he recovered from a bad case of poverty consciousness and struck it rich. One of his more memorable pieces of advice was to "find out what poor people read and don't read it." So maybe the Houston International Film Festival needs to find out where the symphony, and the ballet, and the opera are going to get money, and don't go there.