Tom Mara and Beth Barrett: SIFF’s Dynamic Duo

March 18, 2024

Tom Mara planned to retire when he left Seattle nonprofit radio station KEXP after two stints totaling 34 years. That didn’t last long. In August 2022, Mara accepted the CEO job at the Seattle International Film Festival. Here, he and longtime Artistic Director Beth Barrett discuss how SIFF became one of the largest film festivals in the world, and what’s in store as the festival celebrates 50 years. This year’s festival runs from May 9-19 at SIFF’s four venues across the city, including the venerable SIFF Cinema Downtown (formerly known as The Cinerama).

 

 

 

 

 

Transcript:

Rob Smith: Hello, Seattle. My name is Rob Smith, Executive Editor of Seattle Magazine, and welcome to the Seattle Magazine podcast. I’m joined, as usual, by Seattle Magazine’s Director of Opportunities, Linda Lowry.

Rob Smith: Hi, Linda. 

Linda Lowry: Hello. 

Rob Smith: And we have two very special guests today. Tom Mara, CEO of the Seattle International Film Festival, known as SIFF, and SIFF’s longtime artistic director, Beth Barrett, who served in that role for almost 8 years and has been with SIFF for more than two decades. Welcome to both of you, Tom, Beth.

Rob Smith: Thank you very much for taking time out of what I’m sure is a very busy schedule to join us today. 

Beth Barrett: Thanks for having us.

Rob Smith: And SIFF has been held annually in Seattle since 1976. And this is SIFF’s 50th year this year. It is one of the largest film festivals in the world, featuring a diverse assortment of mostly independent and foreign films and documentaries.

Rob Smith: This year’s festival runs from May 9 through May 19 at SIFF’s four venues. In the Uptown neighborhood, the Seattle Center, Capitol Hill, and of course, the former Cinerama, now known as SIFF Cinema Downtown. We’re going to talk a lot about that development a little bit later on.

Rob Smith: So first off, what do you have planned in celebration of the 50th year? And if the festival started in 1976, how is this the 50th year?

Beth Barrett: Well, I can answer the second one first. Um, our original founders, Dan Ireland and Daryl McDonald, um, were deeply, deeply superstitious. So we didn’t have a 13th. So unlike humans who start at zero and become one, events start at one.

Beth Barrett: And then the next year there too. And so the combination of that and simply not having a 13th, we had a 12th and the next year we had a 14th, just skipped it. Never to talk about it again means that, uh, you know, we’re 48 years old, but celebrating our 50th anniversary. 

Rob Smith: I don’t know if I have any words for that. That’s, uh, I never would have figured that out, but I kept reading. 1976, 50th year, I even counted on my fingers. The math just didn’t work. 

Beth Barrett: Yeah, hashtag great at films, bad at math. 

Tom Mara: We’re not constrained to actual time. We can bend time as we’d like.

Rob Smith: So what do you have planned in celebration of the 50th year? Anything special to mark 5 decades?

Beth Barrett: Yeah. I mean, it’s a, it’s a huge milestone and we’ve actually been celebrating since, uh, early this year with our 50 years of SSIF up at the Egyptian, we’re just about to launch the second, it was, we’re doing it in three parts and we’re just about to launch the second part of it, um, actually tonight with Polterduke, which is Poltergeist, which premiered at, uh, the festival and then the Babadook combined in a double feature, um, for the horror fans among us.

Beth Barrett: And really what we’ve been doing with that program is the, the first set, we looked at all the award winners and jury winners and audience favorites and that sort of thing. The second set is we polled the longtime pass holders and the staff to see what were, what were the films that really stood out for you?

Beth Barrett: What were the films that you remember from working with us from going to the festival before you worked for us? And then the third. A set, which we just before the festival starts is a combination of the two of them, um, films that we just really felt were important to highlight, um, through our 50 years of history.

Beth Barrett: So we’ve been celebrating this whole year. We’re also, um, going to launch an archive site so that people can see all of the films that have ever played at the festivals. Um, and we’re, we have a call out for people to email us with their recollections and their thoughts about the festival. Um, it’s archives@siff.net

Beth Barrett: Uh, if you’re interested in sharing anything, or you discover that you have a treasure trove of buttons from the festival, or that, you know, you have an original Joey stand, or that you have, you know, a catalog from the first that you don’t know what to do with. We’d love to see all of those kinds of things, um, at the, in the archives.

Rob Smith: How many films have you shown over 50 years? 

Beth Barrett: Oh, that’s an excellent question. Um, my knee jerk reaction is somewhere around 18,000. 

Linda Lowry: Wow. I love that you’re doing that archival, um, aspect of the film festival, because I’ve been, you know, going to this film festival since I moved here in 2009, and I love meeting all the special guests that you bring on board from Kevin Bacon, Angelica Houston, Ethan Hawke, Viggo Mortensen.

Linda Lowry: So this being your 50th year, Can you give us a sneak peek of who you’re bringing to the film festival? Come on, Beth. 

Beth Barrett: I really cannot. Um, we don’t have anything firmly in place just yet. 

Linda Lowry: Not even like a hint of like a movie, like. Teaser. Sorry. 

Linda Lowry: All right. Dang. Okay. I know. You know I have to try. 

Linda Lowry: You gotta try. For those film lovers. So, um, I’m just looking at my questions 

Beth Barrett: Fifty years? 18, 000, but I would have to get the actual number. Um, I don’t, that’s just sort of in the back of my head somewhere. I’m like, we’ve shown 18, 000 films.

Beth Barrett: Wow. 

Linda Lowry: So, yeah, but looking at your films, you know, SIFF places a really strong emphasis on diversity and inclusivity. How has this commitment, and this could be a question for Tom, influence the programming and organizational culture of SIFF or Beth, that could be like the best. Both Beth and Tom question.

Tom Mara: Well, why don’t I say a couple things real briefly, but Beth is really in the, in the great position to be able to answer it fully. But as someone relatively new to Um, I noticed right away and had noticed for a long time how, um, SIFF is full of voices from around the world and, and that is, uh, part of the, the, the DNA.

Tom Mara: And you also look at the staff. Who are the folks that are making these choices about these diverse voices from around the world? And it’s a great, uh, diverse team is as well. Um, one thing I love about SIFF is that, um, Beth is not behind the curtain, you know, like Wizard of Oz determining every single, this is, this is an actual large team effort where I think last year we considered nearly 6, 000 films, 75 percent of the films in the festival are from outside the United States.

Tom Mara: Beth does a great job in, in championing the diversity of voices. 

Beth Barrett: Yeah, this year it’s actually somewhere around 7, 000. We just did a count because we’re sort of ending, getting to the final, uh, final, um, selections. Um, you know, one of the things that, that Stan, our Associate Director of Festival Programming, Stan Shields, and I talk about All of the time is how do we make sure that within our sections that are representing international voices, that the directors are from that community, that the film, the film team, and it’s, it’s not just, you know, it’s not just the financing and it’s not just the money, but those voices are rising out of that community and even more.

Beth Barrett: So how do we assure that the programming team that we’re working with is also in touch with that community and is also. Um, able to sort of just recognize aspects of those films that will resonate differently with their community as opposed to with a primarily white community. So I’m thinking about, you know, our Asian Crossroads team, which are, you know, three really talented human beings who represent different parts of the Asian diaspora, the Asian American experience.

Beth Barrett: And, um, They’re really looking at these films from a completely different position than say, I would not being part of that community. I would be like, Okay, well, I’m looking for this star or, you know, for this storyline. And they’re like, Actually, it’s this storyline. This is what we care about here in Seattle.

Beth Barrett: This is what the audience really actually wants. And so the team that we’ve built up over the last 10 years or so, really Um, You know, as, as programmers, they’re looking at the quality of film, yes, but also the quality of how the story is going to play in that community and how, how we can, how we can reflect what’s going on in the world and bring all those.

Beth Barrett: Bring all those stories and bring all those complexities, because a lot of them are complex and not everybody agrees about, you know, different political situations, but how can we bring those complexities here to Seattle in a way that invites those discussions, that invites those communities to come and, and, and fully participate?

Beth Barrett: Um, and so our team, uh, our, our programming team is about 18 people, um, from, from, they mostly live here in Seattle, but they represent different parts of, of the communities that, that also live here in Seattle. Um, and we watch about 7, 000 films and it’s insane. 

Rob Smith: Those meetings gotta be fascinating.

Beth Barrett: They are really there right now. They’re super easy because we’re all still high level. Like, Hey, can you take a look at that? Hey, can you take a look at that now? Give us two weeks. And we’re like, we’ve got four slots left. Everyone’s like my film, my film, my film. And you’re like, okay, there’s 12 of you.

Beth Barrett: Can’t all be your films. So how do you find that consensus across all of those, um, uh, all those programmers with very strong feelings about things. And I think that the culture that we’ve developed within our programming team is one of deep collaboration and understanding that, you know, you can’t have four films about the Elwha. 

Beth Barrett: You know, a couple of years ago when, when the Elwha Dam came down, we did, we had four different films. They were all really good, but you can’t play four of them. And so, how do you balance playing one of those to make sure that you’ve hit, you know, the idea of environmentalism, to make sure that you’ve hit, you know, the complexities of, uh, you know, of, of war in.

Beth Barrett: Any given region. You know, how do you balance the program? Because in any given year, we could put a whole nother festival on with a whole nother set of 100 and some films that would be equally as good because there are so many good films out there. So how, how, as a team, do we come in and agree on? These are the most representative films across the board.

Beth Barrett: All of these different sectors, and this is from, you know, deep comedy to experimental films to, you know, horror films to, um, romance and all, like all of the different genres because we were an international festival that is a generalist audience focused festival and. So what we’re really trying to do is give the audiences of Seattle as much an opportunity to participate in the festival that we can.

Rob Smith: culture of collegiality and collaboration. I mean, it sounds like it has to happen, but it can’t be a democracy. Who ultimately is the final decision maker? 

Tom Mara: Beth, uh, and you better not call her at ten minutes to midnight on that final day of deadline. Uh, I don’t know how, frankly, I don’t know how she does it and we should have a medical team around you on that last day, I should say.

Tom Mara: Well…

Rob Smith: Beth, you’ve been intimately involved with the festival for a long time, more than two decades. How has it changed? Is it, is it different considerably 

Beth Barrett: Now then it used to be? Yeah, when I started, there were six of us that worked full time year round. And what that meant was we worked really hard from January through June, and then we checked our emails once a week.

Beth Barrett: For the rest of the year. Um, because all we did was that one 25 day festival. There were a couple of folks that did a few more days, uh, of checking email, but not much. Um, because we were really so, so focused on just that one event. And over the, Over the next, I don’t know, three or four or five years, we really started to invest in having people on year round so that we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we had to hire a whole new marketing director, a whole new development director, a whole new operation, like everybody had to come in new every year because we didn’t have any year on presence.

Beth Barrett: And so moving from, um, 2003, when I started, into, um, 2007, which we opened, at McCaw Hall in the National Family Lecture Hall. That was our opportunity to not just have a year round presence, but also to be able to support the staff to not have to reinvent the wheel for the festival. So it was a very festival serving direction, while yet also establishing that we could kind of see that Landmark was not going to stay necessarily forever, and there needed to be a place for some of those films, some of those smaller films that might not have gotten a chance to be on screens that we were showing as part of festival and the original concept behind openings of cinema as a whole is that we could have a festival year round that we could continue showing those documentaries and those international films.

Beth Barrett: Um, you know, do mini festivals and all kinds of, all kinds of that kind of, um, uh, those kinds of things. Um, and so that we were in McCall Hall until 2011 when we assumed the lease on the Uptown and opened the film center. Um, Mm-Hmm. and then moved into sort of a much more traditional theatrical, you know, Makaha, we were, um, we were the third tenant behind the opera and the ballet.

Beth Barrett: So they got, they got use of the lecture hall first, and when the days that they didn’t want it, then we could use it. And so that was, it was complicated to establish ourselves within the film industry, um, with that kind of limit. Capability and, and, uh, ability to, to do first run films. And so when we, when we, um, opened, reopened the uptown, we were able to really go into that, um, go into that direction.

Beth Barrett: And so we were at every step, we were able to grow. our, our team and, and expand what we were able to do and what we were able to sustainably do. Um, and then, you know, there’s periods of high growth and then a little plateau and then a high growth, you know, in 2014 we reopened the Egyptian when Landmark left.

Beth Barrett: So another little period of growth because it’s like, well, here’s another building. Here’s another thing we have to do, you know, boom, boom, boom. Um, and then, uh, you know, we just. We just kept growing. Um, and then sort of in 17 or 18 kind of plateaued out a little bit, which is great. It’s like, we know what we’re doing.

Beth Barrett: Here’s where we’re doing it. And then, you know, by the time, uh, 2020 rolled around, we had 32 year-round office staff and 35 staff. And so, in that particular time frame, we were able to go from 6 to 76. 

Linda Lowry: Wow. I wanted to ask a question about, um, you know, you talk about the SIFF and, and how is SIFF different from the Sun Valley Film Festival or the Toronto Film Festival or even like the Toronto Film Festival?

Linda Lowry: That is a film festival. How is it different? 

Beth Barrett: Those are all three really different festivals. Um, which is, I mean, it’s a great question because I think every festival has to define for themselves what kind of festival they are. And in something like Venice or Toronto, they’re an audience festival, but really they’re a sales festival.

Beth Barrett: They’re, they’re a market. They’re, um, their films are there to be sold. They’re there to get attention for, um, awards. They’re there to bring celebrities in, and they’ve invested very deeply in that infrastructure and that audience. Um, uh, and so there are similarities, but there’s also immense differences because, um, What Seattle is and what Sun Valley is to a lesser extent is just a very, a much smaller, uh, a much smaller community, a much smaller audience.

Beth Barrett: Um, uh, but what we, what we really excel at in the festival is serving that audience and putting the audience first and that audience. That audience can be filmmakers and distributors and also people who work in the film industry because at the base of it all, all of those people got into this industry because we love films.

Beth Barrett: Um, you know, it’s, it’s not an easy industry to work in. And if you don’t love films, you should probably, you know, go to music. No, I’m kidding. That’s not, that’s not good. But, you know, it’s, that’s really what we’ve focused on. And part of the way that I think we’ve developed ourselves. Um, and develop that audience through the year round presence.

Beth Barrett: And, you know, when we talk about SIFF, we’re talking about a shorthand for the festival for sure, but we’re also talking about the umbrella organization that runs it. So we all, you know, SIFF is, is the, is the parent organization for the festival and for everything we do at SIFF cinema, everything we do through SIFF supports and everything we do through SIFF education.

Beth Barrett: And so the festival is the most front facing. At a certain time of year. Um, but it’s, it’s really all of that. And we’re still even, even now, you know, almost 20 years later, still really looking at how we have that festival feeling every day of every year? Um, in all of our different locations in different ways.

Beth Barrett: How do we engage the audience? How do we How do we bring them what they might be able to see in the multiplex, but they choose to see with us because they believe in the mission of what we’re doing, or how do we bring them something they would never see in the multiplex and really challenge them or, uh, you know, delight them or entertain them.

Rob Smith: Now Tom, you’re known as the radio guy. For those who don’t know, you grew KEXP to the point where it now has 300, 000 listeners, and you increased the budget during your time there from 250, 000 to 12 million. You’ve been with SIFF now for about 18 months, right? Mm hmm, that’s right. What’s been your biggest surprise?

Tom Mara: Well, one lovely surprise, actually, is how familiar SIFF is. Once you, once you start working there, in terms of the nature of the mission, we’re talking about art discovery. KEXP is all about music discovery. SIFF is about championing film discovery. A lot of the same values, um, are, are really held, uh, you know, strongly.

Tom Mara: And we’re arts organizations that have to figure out every day how to get our Art form to play a larger role in your life. Uh, so the, for, for me, the definition of impact, which is what we’re in the business to do, that’s the return we bring to the community. Just like a for profit organization, you invest in a company, you expect to return the exact same model.

Tom Mara: Really folks invest in donating and going to the cinemas and what they expect is SIFF making a difference. And the premise is that the presence of film in somebody’s life to a greater extent makes a greater life. Um, and so what we have to do, not unlike what it was like at KEXP, where I worked for 34 years,is that daily challenge of helping somebody with that, not knowing what they don’t know, And bringing in the unfamiliar to them.

Tom Mara: That’s a tall order, whether it’s music or whether it’s, it’s film. And I think the organizations that do it best are the organizations that are able to engender and deserve trust. So to the extent you trust KEXP to be that music champion in your life, KEXP is going to be doing a better job for you. To the extent you trust SIFF to bring film into your life, then we’ll do a better job for you.

Tom Mara: So, um, we, we. Need to make sure that every day is about extending the reach and being even more meaningful to the people we are reaching That’s the that’s the daily task list right there 

Rob Smith: Now Tom my understanding is you originally were a part of the search committee to find a CEO 

Tom Mara: No, I wouldn’t say search committee.

Tom Mara: I helped, uh, send some candidates while I was still a CEO at, uh, at KEXP. And, uh, I think it was two or three folks. I said, you know, you ought to, you ought to, 

Rob Smith: uh, but you weren’t thinking at the time you would ever become CEO of the 

Tom Mara: organization. No, my, my plan actually started. When I turned 55, I told Mary, my wife, I think I’m, I think it’s time to hand this over to somebody else.

Tom Mara: And two years later, I approached our board chair and said, uh, uh, let’s talk about who’s going to be next. Um, and my plan at that point was to retire and walk the earth, you know, maybe buy a metal detector, find a beach somewhere, start playing pickleball. Not shave as much, uh, let’s say, but, um, but I, I had helped the SIF board a little bit, went to a retreat of theirs, that sort of thing.

Tom Mara: We certainly knew each other. SFIF and KXP are only two doors apart at Seattle Center. Um, and I remember sending a note to the board chair, our wonderful board chair, Diana Knopf, saying, if I can ever be of help in the future, let me know. Uh, so I enjoyed it. 31 full days of retirement between the time I left, uh, um, KEXP at the end of, uh, June and started the 1st of August at, uh, at SIFF back in 2022.

Tom Mara: Wow. 

Beth Barrett: It’s really funny. So, you know when, when people heard that Tom came from the music, uh, industry and, and, and radio, they’re like, what does he know? I mean. What the hell does he know? He doesn’t know anything about film, like how, how is that going to be helpful? And I was like, well, because it actually does, it comes down to the, it comes down to values and how you see your art and your audience.

Beth Barrett: And you know, the values that KEXP holds are the same values that SIFF holds about connecting people to, um, to different ways of expression and, you know, in, in the arts. Luckily, the executive director doesn’t need to know that particular art. That’s actually, that’s my job as the artistic director.

Beth Barrett: And so to know that, that the leadership that Tom brought to KEXP could be translated. To our organization, because we hold the same essential values and the same essential, um, desire to be cornerstones of arts and culture here in Seattle and really lean into being from Seattle, like a radio station. You could be from anywhere because it’s not terrestrial and it.

Beth Barrett: You know, but KEXP leans into what is happening here and what, how can we support bands here? How can we support people who are doing this kind of work here in Seattle and get that out? And I think SIFF does a very similar thing within the film industry and the film community. How can we support local filmmakers not just by showing their films because that’s definitely part of it.

Beth Barrett: But Northwest Film Forum does a great job with local sightings and, um, the Grand Illusion does a great job with some other, with, you know, local productions and things like that. But also by bringing films from around the world here so that the film lovers in the film industry can experience from, you know, other, other art from around the world.

Beth Barrett: And that’s as valuable. to filmmakers and, and to, and to folks in the industry as showing their own films because they get exposed. They meet those other filmmakers, they meet those other film lovers, and, and you, that’s how you make a community. You know, back in, when was it, 98, 99, Kixby started streaming.

Tom Mara: So Literally overnight, we went from our, our world was like a 15 mile radius from, um, top of Capitol Hill or the tower is 18th and Madison. And that was our world. And it was an easy world to work, to live and work in. And then we started streaming. Oh my God. We started getting requests from New Hampshire and Beijing and Berlin.

Tom Mara: And that took us for a loop. I remember, uh, not, I’m being a little dramatic here, but it did cause us to take a step back and say, well, who are we? Uh, should we, for example, become geographically generic and try to appeal to everybody by stripping out the Seattleness of what we are doing? Uh, the references to the weather and what happened at the Crocodile last night.

Tom Mara: But we quickly settled on, uh, well, we can actually do both. We can actually, um, uh, you know, champion. Uh, all music communities around the world. While we champion Seattle as an ambassador to the rest of the world, it goes both ways. And so, just like, uh, people would appreciate an institution, let’s say in Brooklyn, they want it to be Brooklyn based.

Tom Mara: They don’t want it to be geographically generic. So we’re at KEXP very proud of the local roots, uh, the local flavor. And, uh, To this day, I still think they look out the window to tell people 

Beth Barrett: What’s going on outside. John was just like, Oh my God, it’s sunny! 

Linda Lowry: What’s that big thing in the sky? Um, but you know, there’s a lot, you know, with film and music, there’s a lot of great Music and film and one of my favorite soundtracks is the Titanic soundtrack.

Linda Lowry: I love that sound. Not just for Celine Dion. I love Celine Dion and Top Gun soundtrack. So there’s a lot of, I could definitely, there’s a lot of parallels with music and film. Any thought about bringing those two together since you have experience with music and now film? 

Tom Mara: Well we both have talked about this in terms of the intersection of music and film.

Tom Mara: And by the way, Beth is a huge music lover, and on some days you’ll notice she’s working KEXP socks, if you look closely. You may not today, but okay. But, uh, but a lovely little anecdote, last week, um, I was having coffee at the KEXP gathering space, and lo and behold is, uh, Davochka getting set up for their performance.

Tom Mara: They had done, uh, a lot of the music, if not all the music, correct me on this, Beth, and, um, in Little Miss Sunshine. Uh, and that’s a great example of the importance that music plays in film and vice versa. Uh, so absolutely, absolutely. It’s a wonderful marriage between those two. 

Beth Barrett: Yeah, we’ve done, um, we’ve done a number of live soundtracks to silent films.

Beth Barrett: We, uh, The Invincible Czars. We’re recently up, we, um, partnered with the Seattle Symphony to do, uh, they did a live score to Metropolis, uh, just a month or two ago. Um, we work with DJ Nick Fit, who, um, spins new soundtracks to classic, well, Classic films. We’ll call it a classic. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but I’ve got it.

Beth Barrett: It’s exciting. Um, and so that, that, that interplay of, of how music, uh, works within film, but also how music works within the cinema itself, like being physically there and having the live music, even if the sound is on, on the, on the screen. But, but that, yeah. That combination, of course, of live music and, uh, and silent film is huge.

Beth Barrett: And we do that in a year round setting as well as in festival settings. 

Tom Mara: Let me, let me also echo the, this, this combination of symphonic music and the screening of the film behind what the Seattle Symphony is doing is just, um, wonderfully overwhelming. It’s amazing. I love it. When, uh, last, last, uh, year we partnered with the symphony with, um, um, Battleship Potemkin.

Tom Mara: Yep. And, uh, it’s, it’s a, you know, it’s an iconic film. And then you’ve got God knows how many 60, 80, um, Musicians that are providing that music to you, and it’s a full, just frontal experience. It just, it just captures you. So I really applaud what, uh, what the symphony’s doing. And as a matter of fact, I took my grandson to, excuse me, my daughter to see, uh, um, Uh, Princess Bride on, uh, on Saturday, that was a, um, at the symphony, that was, that was just lovely.

Rob Smith: How did this Cinerama deal happen? 

Tom Mara: Well, um, I think it, it was an expectation that was formed within the first few minutes of me taking the job. Uh, in other words, um My silly joke, uh, no one’s told me to stop saying this, is like, Welcome to SIFF, Tom, on that Monday morning, and there’s your office over there, the restroom over there, and what the hell are you going to do about, you know, Cinerama?

Tom Mara: Uh, and it’s the, it’s the right question to ask. But it’s also asking the question at a time when CIFF, uh, That was the first time I had ever experienced this body blow. You know this trajectory that Beth was talking about. This lovely growth over time. COVID comes, we go from 31 full time staff to three.

Tom Mara: Because there was no way, there was no way of us providing service anymore. Either year round or the festival or education or SIFF supports. So it just, Became dark, uh, and by the time I came on board, it had bounced back to a significant extent, I think over 20, 25 staff or so, uh, so it was on its way bouncing back.

Tom Mara: But at the same time, as I told our board, I think the battle cry here is, um, uh, self reliance, sustainability. We need to be able to get our sea legs back before we can really get serious about, uh, investing in a vision. Uh, and the thinking behind that a little bit is you can certainly envision and start building strategy.

Tom Mara: You can certainly do that, but it certainly becomes a lot more relevant when you’re standing on solid ground. Uh, so that really was the, the battle cry, but lo and behold, there’s, um, this, uh, opportunity with thanks to the, uh, Allen estate and thanks to Paul who had purchased the Cinerama back in 1998 and refurbished it in a very similar style of what he did in all these projects.

Tom Mara: Best. technology ever, state of the art, et cetera, and really breathe new life into it. Um, and when he passed, uh, like a lot of assets that were sold to send those dollars back to the foundation for strategic reasons, uh, uh, the Cinerama was one of them. Uh, so I just simply made a phone call over, over to.

Tom Mara: Some folks I knew there saying, you know, should we put SIFF in line for a conversation? Can we get ourselves in line to talk about a possibility here? And the shorter version of this, of the answer is, um, those conversations went well. I think everybody wanted this kind of outcome. And we had help from the city, the county, from some philanthropists as well.

Tom Mara: Windcoat foundation, uh, far star foundation, uh, kind of rallied quickly. to make sure we could acquire it, but also to support the effort to get it to open. Those are two different things. It’s one thing to buy a house. It’s another thing to be able to fill it up with, you know, furniture and turn on the gas.

Rob Smith: Were you competing with other organizations too? 

Tom Mara: acquire Cinerama? I’m not sure. I think there was competition and there should have, and I would have I don’t think anybody would have, would assume that because how wonderful that, uh, that property is. Uh, at the same time, um, we felt we brought a public service mission to the table.

Tom Mara: Um, and, and that’s kind of difficult to find. Not anybody can, uh, come forth with a, uh, Ability and a track history to say, yes, we can take this facility and continue to uphold it as a cathedral of cinema, uh, and make sure it stays in our, in our hearts for years to come. Um, and, and, uh, you know, to the credit of, uh, city officials, philanthropists, donors, staff, because remember this project came just on top of everything else we had to do.

Tom Mara: And. You know, Beth’s head did not explode on, uh, which I expected, um, and the team did an amazing job rallying, uh, because, uh, there was a lot of stuff to figure out, a lot of planning, a lot of risk assessment. Can we do this? Uh, and the good news is that things lined up. We were able to do it and just the earned media.

Rob Smith: You received for, I mean, everybody knows SIFF already, but now everybody’s still talking about SIFF and Cinerama. 

Tom Mara: Well, thanks to Seattle magazine, I gotta tell you. That was a big help. 

Rob Smith: And Linda herself wrote about this a couple of months back. 

Linda Lowry: Absolutely. And plus it didn’t help that. You know, the inaugural film was Boys in the Boat with, uh, Daniel James Brown and George Clooney and Amal came to Seattle.

Linda Lowry: So that was amazing. 

Tom Mara: Yeah, that was, uh, you know, Hollywood royalty in the lobby. That doesn’t happen every day. 

Beth Barrett: My dad actually called and said, Wait, was George Clooney actually in, in your lobby? Did you meet him? Because he saw it in, like, USA Today or something. I was like, well, yeah, I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody beforehand, but, 

Linda Lowry: yeah.

Linda Lowry: Amazing. So, in my house, there are four theaters. Each contributing to the overall film experience here in Seattle. So how do you curate and balance the programming across these venues and what unique contributions does each theater make to the festival’s overall atmosphere?

Beth Barrett: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question because, um, like, as we all know, buildings have personalities. And they really, um, we really think about all of the different cinemas having really different takes on, on moviegoers and really different takes on audiences. And it’s, it’s shifted over time. Um, so, you know, the, the sort of the, the big shiny one, you know, the cinema downtown, that’s really, pretty first run.

Beth Barrett: That is really those big blockbuster hits. You know, we’re opening Dune there, uh, you know, next Thursday, that kind of thing. You know, the expectation is, it’s a destination, um, to see films and, and it’s really, you know, it’s, it’s big, it’s shiny and it’s going to play all the big, big, big blockbusters and it sounds good too.

Beth Barrett: It sounds so good. Looks good. Sounds good. Um, and then, you know, the Egyptian, which is very much a neighborhood. Um, movie theater, but also a destination because, uh, you know, it’s the Egyptian. We’ve really, um, leaned into that being a, uh, a home of more series and community partnerships and our support. Um, so other film festivals, film events, um, some first run, like we had a month worth of Barbie there, which was great, but also Noir City.

Beth Barrett: And, um, you know, lots of, lots of different things. So there’s always something almost completely different at the Egyptian. Uh, and that’s the one that changes the most. It has the most, um, energy in, in that sort of way. It’s, you know, sort of, you know, what, what. What people are finding about, uh, about the audiences returning is that it’s not necessarily the over 50 audiences.

Beth Barrett: They may or may not ever come back. The audiences that are returning to cinemas are the 20 to 35 year olds. Which is unusual, like that’s not really usually what people hear about, um, in terms of returning audiences, but it’s post pandemic. That’s what we’re finding across the country and it’s, it’s repertory and it’s international fair and it’s art house fair.

Beth Barrett: Um, I think they got tired of Marvel movies and there’s just this feeling of being together in an experiential. Uh, screening. And so we’re seeing that a lot at the Egyptian. So the Egyptian has that like I am cool and hip and I’ve got some really interesting stuff going on. 

Rob Smith: Well, how does that realization factor into the selection of the films?

Beth Barrett: So, yeah we have a couple of different programmers. Uh, I do a lot of your own programming, but we also have Casey Garnstrom who does a lot of your own programming. and she focuses on the series. Um, so like the March monster madness, which is, is, uh, just getting started next week and, um, experiential films.

Beth Barrett: We’re having, um, uh, a couple of screenings of your fat friend with the director and the subject coming up to have this, a much more in depth discussion, those kinds of things. And so she’s really focused on bringing those. Um, unique screenings to the Egyptian primarily to really energize and engage that audience.[00:38:00] 

Beth Barrett: And then the Uptown is really the home for arthouse cinema. It’s you know, it’s where Vin Vendor’s Perfect Days is playing right now and Taste of Things with Julia Pinoche. It’s where you would think like, I want to see an arthouse set up there. It’s right there at the Uptown, which is great. 

Beth Barrett: Um. Uh, as a triplex, it can be a little bit more flexible, which is great. And then the Film Center is really a community program space. We do a lot of rentals, a lot of SIFF support, a lot of smaller one off screenings. You talked a little bit about film and music. We’re bringing in a documentary about Ennio Morricone called Ennio at the End of March, um, just for a couple of shows, just, you know, those kinds of interesting things.

Beth Barrett: It’s also the home of SIFF education. We have a class that just. Got off, uh, got off its feet on Wednesday called Troubled Teens, um, you know, representation of youth in movies. And so there’s lots of different interesting ways that all of the cinemas play together. And when, so when we’re looking at a film, it’s kind of like, well, how is this going to, you know, first, what is the requirement from the distributor?

Beth Barrett: Does it need to have, you know, a clean screen? And in other words. It’s the only thing on that screen, in which case, that goes to the uptown, because that’s where that, that’s where that kind of thing can happen. If people are open to a couple of screenings, or one off, or a weekend, we can kind of be a little more flexible.

Beth Barrett: And so trying to, trying to Let each one of the theaters themselves shine and provide something very different to Seattle, you know, if we show the same films in all four of our theaters, then we’re just a giant multiplex. We’re just in different spaces and that’s. antithetical, uh, to the kinds of experiences that we’re trying to provide and the kinds of community that we’re trying to engage with, um, and so letting those buildings themselves actually participate in some of that, um, is really, is great.

Linda Lowry: Lily Gladstone. That’s who you’re That’s who you’re bringing, right? To the film festival? I just had to say it. 

Beth Barrett: She had to put it out there in the world as a that’s what should happen. She’s not going to give this up. No, I know. I’ve known Linda for a long time. 

Tom Mara: But what I know of Beth, you can put a Klieg light next to her during this interrogation and she will not, she will not break.

Beth Barrett: If it’s not on our website, it’s not public. 

Linda Lowry: Well, looking ahead, you know, what exciting plans or initiatives does SIFF have for the future? 

Tom Mara: Well, one that, um, I think is going to Really open a door to a new chapter is all of us, staff and board, taking a step back and building our next strategic plan. And, SIFF is like a lot of orgs organizations could do anything.

Tom Mara: It just can’t do everything. Uh, and so we’re right at the, uh, let’s say the first quarter of the, of this strategic planning, um, uh, game to figure out what are the four. Areas of investment where the sort of the investment grade decisions we had to make right now for the future What do we do in terms of connecting film to more people through our cinemas through a festival through education?

Tom Mara: SIFF selects and if you ask the question, who does SIFF serve one way of thinking about it kind of graphically? Is that inner circle the film lover and soon to be film lover? That’s who we really spend most of our time, uh, serving. And then the next concentric circle is the emerging filmmaker, the independent filmmaker.

Tom Mara: And then the third circle is really focused on the film ecosystem. What can SIFF do to convene? What can SIFF do to advocate for better policies to make, uh, the film ecosystem even more vibrant in Washington State, in Seattle, you know, et cetera? Um. And, uh, you know, the further development of, uh, SIFF Cinema downtown is also key.

Tom Mara: We’ve, we’ve been open now for what, uh, two, two full months. So that’s got a lot of our, uh, uh, attention. Um, and then the, another question we have is how can we reach more people, be more meaningful to the folks that we serve? Um, You know, building community online, I think is going to be a big part of our, um, our future.

Tom Mara: It’s not too unlike what we did it at KEXP Where you there’s this, I think, need for music lovers need for filmmaker film lovers to share what they love and share that [00:43:00] with with others. And I think that could be really the foundation for building an even stronger community around self. 

Rob Smith: So do you have any, uh, any guesses on who will win? The interrogation continues on who will win the Golden Space Needle Award for best film at the festival?

Rob Smith: And in general, does that award surprise you sometimes? 

Beth Barrett: Um, I have no guesses because none of those titles are public. Um, but I know, right? Y’all are good. Uh, It, it does surprise me and it also doesn’t surprise me because I’m generally there with the audiences and you can really sense when an audience is going on that journey with the filmmaker and so, um, it is, it’s It’s, I can often figure out what it’s going to be.

Beth Barrett: Sometimes it’s like, Oh wow, that, that came out of nowhere and like, and there it is. And it’s one, um, which is great because the voting happens and it’s, it’s a pure numerical thing. The number of people divided by the total votes. It’s just, it’s straight up math. Um, so it’s, it’s, it’s always very, very interesting to figure out like what’s gonna, what’s falling into the, into the top 10.

Rob Smith: What’s your favorite movie you’ve ever seen there? 

Beth Barrett: Um, oh, my favorite movie is very, impossible. Most memorable film was early on, it was 1994, I think, um, To Die For Gus Van Sanz To Die For. And, uh, he was, he was here and, uh, he had brought Nicole Kidman with him and I know, right. Amazing. But this is 1994, so before she’s really known.

Beth Barrett: Um, and they were doing a Q& A in the Egyptian and I had bought myself a ticket because I was new, I had just gotten here, I got here in October of 93. So I was like, I am, I am a film person now. This is how I’m inventing myself. And I’d always gone to films in college and stuff like that, but this is like, I’m going to be a festival person.

Beth Barrett: And I was sitting there and I was like, Oh my God, and there’s the director and there’s the actress and all these people are here. And it was just, it was really, it was one of those. One of those realizations, because that didn’t happen in Iowa City where I went to college, like I saw a lot of really great arthouse titles, oftentimes alone in the theater, but, um, but there was no directors there.

Beth Barrett: There was no, that wasn’t the experience that I was having. And so that, that actually just sort of shifted things for me. Oh, there’s something really interesting happening here. 

Linda Lowry: Mhm. I love it. So with the film festival coming up on its 50th anniversary, how, what is your advice to those new film goers that are coming to the film festival for the first time?

Linda Lowry: Because it is kind of difficult to navigate the website just to be ready. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I still have difficulty navigating. I’ve been going there for years. Um, how can you help us? What advice do you have for our listeners to help navigate that? How to buy tickets? When to look out for, you know, when that special guest is coming and how to navigate that online and get tickets?

Beth Barrett: Yeah. I mean, the thing that I always say is, um, you know, pick up the program guide. Um, and you can read a lot about each one of the films in there, see the grid, um, and, uh, first time folks, I always say, you know, choose the film that you want and then choose either the film before it or the film after it.

Beth Barrett: And those are the ones that often are going to be the one that, like, changes something for you, because, You know, we all go into it going, Well, I like this kind of thing. I like Japanese romance. And so I am only going to see Japanese romance. But you might find that you actually really like Icelandic humor.

Beth Barrett: Like it just it, you may never have known that. And so being open to that. I think is really the most amazing thing and the most, um, and the most fun way to, to navigate the festival. Um, I will say, you know, for the website, we have different ways to filter things. You can filter things by, I live in this neighborhood, I only want to see this theater, or, um, I’m only interested in this kind of thing, or I’m only interested in, in films on, you know, weekends or on evenings or, or things like that.

Beth Barrett: Um, I would get a ticket to opening night because it’s going to be an extraordinary evening. It’s our 50th birthday. So we are going to have a, uh, a golden celebration. So start figuring out your outfits. Um, uh, you know, our festival art, uh, done by, uh, done by Wong Doody is incredible this year. Um, and the, the.

Beth Barrett: It’s 50 years of surprising films. We’re, we’re SIFFty. We have surprised people with different kinds of films for nearly 50 years. Um, and it’s that, that element of surprise that I think is most interesting. So even if you’re brand new and you don’t know what to do, find a day that you’re free and a, you know, a time, a timeframe that you’re free and a cinema that you want to go to and say, great, I’m going to go to that film.

Beth Barrett: I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to go to that film and I’m going to see what happens. 

Rob Smith: The Seattle International Film Festival, May 9th through May 19th. Beth Barrett, Tom Marra, thank you so much for a fascinating conversation. Thank you, Linda. 

Rob Smith: And thank you for listening to the Seattle Magazine podcast.

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