Film Festival: Palm Springs Gold

Meryl Streep, Margo Martindale 25th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival 600x338
25th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala – Awards Presentation. Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale

It’s no mirage.

After a quarter-century, and some early struggles, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has seen its visibility and star quotient rise significantly by tapping into Hollywood’s hotly contested movie awards season.

The festival’s success—it now draws about 130,000 attendees—has come without a lucrative television deal for its black-tie gala similar to ones enjoyed by the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Awards.

The festival was the brainchild of the late Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono, who rose to stardom as half of the pop singing duo Sonny and Cher and later became a U.S. congressman representing the Coachella Valley. Bono died in a 1998 skiing accident.

Harold Matzner, a local businessman and philanthropist who was a close friend and tennis partner of Bono’s, eventually took over the financially struggling festival and improved its bottom line.

A patron of the arts, Matzner not only chairs the film festival but also chairs the McCallum Theatre, is vice president on the board of trustees at the Palm Springs Art Museum, and his other philanthropic efforts include Desert AIDS Project, Stroke Recovery Center, Temple Isaiah and Animal Samaritans. He owns Spencer’s restaurant in Palm Springs.

Matzner has credited the late Hollywood publicist Ronni Chasen for helping him get Hollywood studios to send movie stars being mentioned for the Oscars to be honored at the Palm Springs festival’s black-tie gala. Chasen was murdered in 2010 in a drive-by shooting in Beverly Hills as she drove her black Mercedes-Benz and police concluded it was a random attack carried out by a transient riding a bike.

Matzner chairs the tax-exempt organization behind the festival—the Palm Springs International Film Society.

The film society’s Form 990 tax returns that are filed annually with the IRS show that the nonprofit has achieved success as the film festival has become more popular.

The tax filings show that:
*The film festival had more than $26 million in total support from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13.
*Revenues totaled $3.9million and expenses totaled $3.3 million in fiscal 2012-13.
*No grants were listed from fiscal 2009-10 to 2012-13.
*Chairman Matzner and other board members received no compensation for their work on the festival.
*The nonprofit paid Spencer’s restaurant $117,525 for catering and use of its facilities in fiscal 2012-13 and $113,912 in fiscal 2011-12.
*The nonprofit paid Wessman Development Co. $89,896 and $90,638 for the same two fiscal years. The company is owned by John Wessman, a vice chair of the film society.
*The nonprofit paid Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet $37,500 in fiscal 2011-12 for public relations work.

Mayor Pougnet, Matzner and Wessman did not respond to requests for comments from HollywoodNews.
A key to the festival’s success has been its ability to deftly link itself to the movie awards season by luring actors and actresses who are being mentioned as possible Oscar contenders to the Coachella Valley. The honorees are feted at a black-tie gala and receive extensive media coverage from Entertainment Tonight and many other broadcast and print outlets.

In a signal that this year’s race for the Academy Awards had shifted into high gear, the festival’s Gala Awards Show, held January 4 before the Oscar nominations were announced, honored such screen performers as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bruce Dern, Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong’o. Of these, all but Hanks went on to receive Oscar nominations.

At the gala, Streep received the Icon Award for her role in “August: Osage County” while her co-star Roberts received the Spotlight Award. Hanks, who starred in “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” was given the Chairman’s Award. Bullock, who starred in “Gravity,” and McConaughey, who starred in “Dallas Buyers Club,” each took home the Desert Palm Achievement Award, while Dern, who starred in “Nebraska,” received the Career Achievement Award.

Over the years, the black-tie awards gala has drawn such stars as Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem, Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron and Kate Winslet.

The gala also has proven to be a moneymaker. Last year’s gala, for instance, had gross receipts of $1.9 million, according to tax records.

Unlike the Tribeca Film Festival in New York or the Hollywood Film Festival in L.A., both of which are for-profit enterprises, the Palm Springs festival is run by a nonprofit and is required to file an annual Form 990 with the IRS detailing its revenues and expenses and any business transactions involving interested parties. (Note: is owned by Los Angeles businessman Carlos Abreu, the founder and executive director of the Hollywood Film Festival and executive producer of the Hollywood Film Awards black-tie gala at the Beverly Hilton, which is attended by top movie stars. Dick Clark Productions recently invested in the Hollywood Film Awards and plans to televise the awards show on CBS later this year).

Some eyebrows were raised in the Palm Springs community a few years back when Mayor Pougnet was hired by the film festival for public relations work around the time that he was up for reelection.

Matzner has been a key contributor to Pougnet’s campaigns. The Desert Sun reported that Pougnet’s campaign war chest for 2015 had raised $29,700 last year as he looked toward the 2015 election. “His largest contribution of $2,500 came from Harold Matzner, owner of Spencer’s restaurant,” the newspaper reported.

The Desert Sun also reported that the city of Palm Springs contributed $350,000 to this year’s film festival as title sponsor.

In addition to the film festival, Mayor Pougnet, Matzner and Wessman have also supported development of the $300 million Desert Fashion Plaza project in downtown Palm Springs. Wessman’s company is developing the project.

While the film festival is widely praised throughout the Coachella Valley for bringing increased tourism, revenues and media attention to the fabled resort community, there has been considerable controversy over the proposed Desert Fashion Plaza redevelopment project.

The redevelopment project was partially underwritten by Measure J, a voter-approved 1% increase in the local sales tax that passed in 2011.

A recent story published in the Desert Sun reported that between October and December 31 of last year, “a committee called Citizens for Revitalizing Downtown, which formed in 2011 to help get the support needed to pass the Measure J ballot measure…received $17,500 in cash donations this period with most of it–$13,000—coming from Matzner, committee treasurer. Wessman contributed $4,500 to the group.”

The Desert Fashion Plaza, which calls for a hotel and added retail space downtown, is expected to revitalize an area that has been in decline for some years and generate additional property taxes and sales taxes while attracting people to the city’s burgeoning art and nightlife scenes. However, some critics believe that the project will harshly alter the ambiance and traditional look of Palm Springs.

The debate over the Desert Fashion Plaza redevelopment project has turned nasty at times.
Frank Tysen, owner of a local bed-and-breakfast called Casa Cody Inn, and a group called Advocates for Better Community Development, sued to block hotel construction on the Desert Fashion Plaza site. A judge upheld the city and Tysen’s side appealed but later dropped its appeal. But there is a remaining lawsuit that still has to be resolved, Tysen said.

Things have been so heated that during the mayor’s annual State of the City address, Pougnet reportedly singled out Tysen by name.

Blogger James F. Mills, writing on, a website founded in 1982 as a resource for the gay community in Southern California, noted that Tysen had received death threats the same week the Palm Springs City Council opted to let voters decide whether to proceed with the hotel portion of the project and after Pougnet called Tysen an “obstructionist.”

“The Desert Sun reported that a few days (after the address), Tysen found a threatening mention left on his hotel’s voicemail saying he’d better watch his back as his days were numbered,” Mills wrote. Police were investigating.

“Pougnet told (the Desert Sun) it was ‘reprehensible’ that someone would send Tysen a threat, saying that was not his intent when he called Tysen out in his speech,” Mills wrote. “Pougnet said his aim was to point out the lawsuits Tysen has filed against the city and John Wessman, developer of the Desert Fashion Plaza redevelopment project, (that) have held up progress on the project.”

In an interview with HollywoodNews, Tysen acknowledged the threat but he remains steadfast in his view that Palm Springs doesn’t need to change its character in order to attract new businesses and tourists.

“This town is charming and attractive,” he said. “Over the years, people really have been concerned with its physical development.” But the proposed Desert Fashion Plaza will change all that, he contends, blocking out the view of the mountains downtown.

Tysen, nevertheless, praises Matzner for the “great job” he’s done with the film festival and Tysen said he is a big supporter of the film festival itself.

While Matzner chairs the film festival, his baby is really running the black-tie gala that fetes the stars. The festival itself—the screenings, programs, etc.—is run by executive director Darryl MacDonald.

It is Matzner, along with a committee, that selects the honorees for each year’s black-tie gala.
“I took on the project of finding the honorees, identifying them and bringing them here,” Matzner told the Desert Sun in a video Q&A previewing the festival’s 25th anniversary.

The film society, meanwhile, invites people to become members. For as little as $30, a person can become an associate member and be invited to eight sneak preview screenings and special events. Membership fees increase from there with a price tag of $2,500 for one and $4,000 for two), which includes a ticket to select film festival international gala receptions.

Festival passes range in price from $375 to a “Benefactor Pass” costing $2,750, of which $700 is tax deductible, which is good for opening night, closing night, the black-tie awards gala with VIP seating, film screenings and receptions.

The festival’s mission statement is “to cultivate and promote the art and science of film through education and cross-cultural awareness.”

In addition to the big festival, the film society sponsors the Palm Springs International ShortFest & Short Film Market, which is described on the festival’s website as the largest and most prominent short film showcase in North America.

It also sponsors a number of film-related outreach programs in the Coachella Valley. One program is a free classic comedy series held at the Palm Springs Art Museum featuring such films as Harvey and Young Frankenstein. Another is ShortFest Student Screening Day held at Palm Springs High School. And, from October 2012, to last April, the festival hosted a Hollywood Behind the Scenes series by inviting five film critics from major publications to the Rancho Mirage Public Library to discuss significant movies, directors and stars.

Spotlight on portions of the Palm Springs International Film Society’s tax returns:

Total revenues: $3,866,115
Total expenses: $3,313,323
Net assets: $2,359,637

Expenses include:
*$496,169—Production costs
*$289,075—Festival events
*$174,937—Short film festival

Independent contractors:
*$502,044—Event Management Productions, Palm Desert
*$269,698—Palm Springs Convention Center

Business transactions involving interested persons include:
*$117,525—Spencer’s restaurant for catering
*$100,371—The Desert Sun for advertising
*$89,896—Wessman Development Co. for building rent
*$16,605—Dave Baron—for law firms’ legal services

Grants: None listed

Salaries, other compensation and employee benefits: $1,073,959

Darryl MacDonald, festival director
*$175,760—base compensation
*$16,092—nontaxable benefits

Total revenues: $5,356,619
Total expenses: $5,067,439
Net assets: $1,806,845

Expenses include:
*$1,239,298—production costs
*$352,274—production costs-theater
*$215,616—festival parties
*$178,537—Short film festival
*$37,500—Palm Springs Mayor and Festival Honorary Co-Chairman Steve Pougnet, public relations

Independent contractors include:
*$462,844—Event Management Productions
*$241,211—Palm Springs Convention Center

Business transactions involving interested persons include:
*$113,912—Spencer’s restaurant for vendor services
*$90,638—Wessman Development Co. for building rent
*$24,401—D. Baron-attorney for law firms’ legal services

Grants: None listed

Salaries, other compensation and employee benefits: $922,061

Darryl MacDonald, festival director
*$174,070—base compensation
*$16,127—nontaxable benefits

Rhea A. Lewis-Goodson, managing director
*$80,156—base compensation
*$22,588—other compensation

Total revenues: $5,415,554
Total expanses: $5,183,176
Net assets: $1,504,322

Expenses include:
*$1,468,778—in kind production costs
*$708,840—in kind promotional costs
*$430,475—other promotional expenses
*$386,276—production costs-theater
*$295,010—festival events

Independent contractors:
*$402,407—Event Management Productions, Palm Desert

Salaries, other compensation, employee benefits: $865,964

Darryl MacDonald, festival director
*$167,500—base compensation
*$20,485—nontaxable benefits

Total revenues: $2,828,847
Total expenses: $2,699,907
Net assets: $1,271,944

Revenues include:
*$1,099,110—black-tie gala

Expenses include:
*$406,227—other promotional expenses
*$323,366—production costs-theater
*$220,311—festival events
*$100,039—Short film festival

Independent Contractors include:
*$408,062—Event Management Productions for production services
*$200,743—Palm Springs Convention Center for facility rental
*$123,000—Camelot Theater for facility rental
*$120,822—The Desert Sun for printing and advertising

Grants: None listed

Salaries, other compensation and employee benefits: $780,818

Darryl MacDonald, festival director
*$163,000—base compensation
*$11,310—nontaxable benefits

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25th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala – Awards Presentation. Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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