It looks like Katherine Oliver, the fancy-footed commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Television, will be heading to the Cannes Film Festival after all. Things weren’t looking so good last week, when an e-mail from Ms. Oliver under the subject heading “URGENT PLEA” made the rounds asking for donations to help send her and Pat Kaufman, the director of the Governor’s film office, to the festival to promote the new “Made in NY” production initiative. Soon after excerpts of the e-mail were posted on The Observer’s political blog, The Politicker, City Hall officials rushed to her aid and are now footing the bill.
At the time of the e-mail, Ms. Oliver was looking to raise upward of $30,000 from members of the New York Production Alliance, a nonprofit organization comprising various film-production entities, including some local unions.
“This is the year for us to promote the MADE IN NY incentive program … INTERNATIONALLY,” wrote Ms. Oliver. “We would appreciate your support and guidance.”
The e-mail raised a few eyebrows around the film industry and City Hall, given the ethical issues involved when a government agency makes urgent pleas for money from prominent members of an industry it regulates.
“I think it certainly raises questions of conflict of interest,” said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit government-watchdog group. Although it doesn’t appear to violate any regulations, the letter falls into a gray area epitomized by the recent controversy surrounding Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff’s efforts to raise private donations for New York City’s Olympics bid. “How do you say no when someone from the Mayor’s office is calling you?” Ms. Leon said.
Julianne Cho, the film office’s assistant commissioner, defended the initial e-mail, although she was quick to point out that Ms. Oliver wasn’t responsible for the mass solicitation. Rather, a recipient at the NYPA excerpted the e-mail and forwarded it on to their members.
“The Cannes Film Festival is an opportunity to maximize the promotion and success of [the 'Made in NY'] program to a critical mass of international filmmakers for the first time,” said Ms. Cho. “A public-private partnership [would have allowed the] N.Y.C. Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting to more effectively meet our goals.”
And the New York Production Alliance appeared excited to help.
“We’re dealing with reality,” said Morty Dubin, a 52-year veteran of the film industry and chairman emeritus of the NYPA. “Basically, it’s a cooperative effort. The industry cannot depend purely on the city and state. It itself must help out. And that’s what we’re doing.”
The new funding source will go toward “Made in NY’s” marketing blitz on the Croisette. One proposal is to set up camp at the Variety Beach Club, which Ms. Oliver assured her potential investors was in a “prime location” at the festival. Funds would be needed to cover the cost of literature distribution and product display, press releases, press conferences, “Logo or commercial/video compilation reel shows at the Variety Beach Club during a panel discussion and cocktail party,” a full-page black-and-white ad in Variety, one four-color ad in the Cannes version of Variety and items for gift bags. Oh, yeah, she added, “plus we have to consider staff and travel and accommodation.”
But again, Ms. Cho wanted to caution against reading into that too much.
“The New York Production Alliance’s e-mail solicitation was not for personal expenses, but to organize a delegation and a substantial presence from New York,” she said.
Fear not, humble taxpayer.
“The West will be looking to the East for influences, given that they don’t know anything about it. It’s the new untapped channel,” said Hungarian-American director Nimrod Antal, whose first feature film, Kontroll, won the Youth Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and opened in New York City on April 1. Mr. Antal’s pronouncement is quite surprising considering that his film-a gritty moral allegory that follows much-maligned ticket inspectors as they plumb the grimy depths of the Budapest subway system-owes as much to vintage Martin Scorsese as it does to any perceptible Hungarian influences. It’s a film that could easily have come out of New York in the 70′s.
“A film that I watched every day after high school was Taxi Driver,” said the 31-year-old, speaking by phone from a midtown hotel. “So I’m sure that Martin Scorsese is a big influence.” This was only Mr. Antal’s third trip to New York City. “In high school, I was the kid who said, ‘Are you talking to me?’ I was the kid who thought he was Travis Bickle-you know, walking around in an Army jacket.”
Not unexpectedly, Mr. Antal never felt at home growing up in L.A. And at 17, he did what had to be a Hollywood first-he left Hollywood to study film in Hungary. After graduation, he stayed in Budapest and cut his teeth on commercials and music videos, a booming industry riding the tide of Hungary’s nascent capitalist economy. It didn’t take long, however, for Mr. Antal to become disillusioned with the whole racket.
“Being [frustrated] with my own situation, just being unhappy with what I was doing at the time-that being commercials-I think a lot of that emotion was put into the movie,” he said. Mr. Antal channeled his frustration into the main character of the film, Bulcsú- a forlorn ticket inspector, or “controller,” who is fleeing certain success at a nondescript white-collar job in the world above. “Being unsatisfied with yourself and where you are at in life-I think a lot of young people go through that. What is success? Is it a big bank account? Or is it winning awards? It’s a schizophrenic thing between quality and this pop-trash kind of stuff. I don’t know.”