Experienced Rancho Santa Fe team bringing ‘fresh vision’ to this year’s San Diego Film Festival

By Kathy Day

Put a film festival in the hands of people with expertise in filmmaking, business strategies, and marketing and public relations and you’re going to see some changes.

So brace yourself for a “new” San Diego Film Festival as the executives of Rancho Santa Fe-based Mantooth Films put their knowledge to work on the board of directors. Dale Strack is chairing the Foundation board with his fellow Mantooth executives Tonya Mantooth as executive director and Patti Judd as vice president. They join Foundation board president Kevin Leap and vice president Steven Persitza as driving forces behind the 2012 festival, which runs from Sept. 26-30.

For the first time, the festival will be held in two parts of the city – the Gaslamp Quarter and La Jolla. The event will showcase the first film festival retrospective of work by Gus Van Sant, who will be on hand in La Jolla to accept an award on Sept. 27. His work includes “Milk,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “Elephant.”

Once the Mantooth crew got involved, Strack said they knew it would be an interesting project as well as a lot of work.

“We began to see exciting opportunities for San Diego,” he said, adding that they felt the festival – now in its 11th year – needed “fresh vision, a lot of passion and direction. That’s what filmmaking is all about for us.”

Mantooth, an eight-time Emmy award winner who has produced documentaries and TV campaigns, formed her production company in 2007. A couple of years ago with Strack – her husband, a business strategy expert – and Judd, a brand marketing specialist and long-time colleague, the team focused its efforts on the film industry and formed Mantooth Films.  Their latest project is “Deadtime Stories for Kids,” a television series based on books published by Starscape. They recently announced that Cookie Jar Entertainment will distribute the first season of 26 episodes, with “Grave Secrets” as the pilot episode.”

Judd said as they looked at the evolution of the San Diego Film Festival and what they would do if they joined the team, there were a number of factors that they explored.

“How could we benefit the festival, the film industry, the film commission and San Diego” was one point.

They also wanted to expand the focus of what had been “just a San Diego festival” and make it a destination festival like Sundance, Napa or Tribeca.

“The fiscal impact on the county is huge,” Judd said, to which Mantooth added, “If the top-line revenue is $3 million, that’s $30 million to the county.”

As filmmakers, Mantooth said, they wanted to bring new tracks to the festival.

Since her father was a Seminole, she said she has a kinship with the local Native American tribes and wanted to find a way to bring their voices to the festival.

“I feel like in Southern California, and especially San Diego, the number of tribes is enormous,” Mantooth continued. “As much as they give in sponsorships in the community, that’s not reciprocated.”

They also spotted an opportunity to focus on music and films, be it “music in film or films about music,” and the role of women in films, in part as a way to focus on the talents women bring to the industry to spur studios to pay more attention to them, she said.

On top of that, they want to “help bring funding to filmmakers,” Strack added. “We’re working on how to do that now … This is an industry in transition. It’s not as centered on theaters, but more on the TV and computer screen. It is the age of digital.”

Judd said their goal is to expand the festival, including the number of films screened – this year they plan to air about 100 films, up 20 percent from a year ago – and audience attendance. “We anticipate a 300 percent increase in attendance this year,” Judd said.  In five years, they want 100,000 people in town for the festival.

The team is currently screening 1,000 feature films, documentaries, shorts, animated films and international ones, looking for those that best fit the new image they want to project. There will also be panels aimed at industry audiences and film lovers, as well as parties for five days running.

They are working with organizers of San Diego’s Hispanic, Asian and Jewish film festivals in an effort to highlight those events, as well as bring them into the mix for the September event.

“We’re trying to create a band of brothers of film festivals,” Mantooth said. “When the water rises it lifts all the boats.”

The decision to take part of the festival to La Jolla and the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Sherwood Auditorium is a way to expand the reach within San Diego as well as to “grow the community of filmgoers,” she added.

It will also “help us bring more people from around the county and Los Angeles and Orange Counties,” Strack said. “La Jolla is known there as an attractive place to visit and Gus is excited to be staying there.”

The addition of La Jolla came with the urging and support of the La Jolla Village Merchants Association, which will co-host the Van Sant gala at the museum.

The logistics of pulling off a festival in two areas is tricky, Mantooth said. Some films will screen twice, once in the Gaslamp and once in La Jolla, but they are “trying to marry the films and programs” to each of the venues.

For the first year, there will be only one place for the events in La Jolla, where they have received a warm welcome, Strack said, but that they hope to find more opportunities there once the first year is behind them.

For the city at large, the event is a chance to impact the economy, “build on San Diego’s strengths and highlight its uniqueness,” he said. “A film festival is an unprecedented opportunity for people to experience films with great stories … to support existing and emerging filmmakers and to interact with producers, directors and writers.”

Simply put, “it should be fun,” he added.

For more information, visit www.mantoothfilms.com or www.SanDiegoFilmFest.com

Tickets: $14 for pre-sale/$16 at the door; up to $75 for a one-day pass; up to $500 for a Festival VIP Pass to all screenings, premieres, events, and panels on all days.

Tax-deductible Patron Passes $2,500 to $25,000.

Preliminary Calendar for the 2012 San Diego Film Festival includes:

Wednesday, Sept. 26

•Opening Night Premiere & Party (Reading Theater, FLUXX Nightclub, Gaslamp)

•Live broadcasts from the red carpet at 5 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 27

•Film Screenings from 3 p.m. – 10 p.m.  (Reading Theater, Gaslamp)

•Gus Van Sant Tribute & Retrospective. Red Carpet Cocktail Reception (Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla)

Friday Sept. 28

•Film Screenings from 3 p.m. – 10 p.m. (La Jolla Museum & Reading Theater, Gaslamp)

•“Almost Famous” Screening and Block Party (Gaslamp)

Saturday, Sept. 29

•Film Screenings from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. (La Jolla Museum & Reading Theater, Gaslamp)

•Industry Panels, Workshops

•Awards Night and Filmmakers Brewhaha from 9 p.m. – Midnight (TBD)

Sunday, Sept. 30

•Film Screenings from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Reading Theater, Gaslamp)

•Closing Night Film Premiere (Reading Theater, Gaslamp)

For more information, visit www.SanDiegoFilmFest.com

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