Mark Famiglio,  President of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Sarasota Film Festival, has been inseparable from the festival since he took the reins in 2008. This year, marking the 25th anniversary of Festival, Mark sat down with SRQ’s Executive Publisher, Wes Roberts, to reminisce and share thoughts on the history of the festival. Both men had been part of the Festival since its inception, and found it an interesting time to tell stories and compare memories about the true “inside scoop” of the film festival. This is a small excerpt of a much longer conversation that will be released as a podcast and video interview. Don’t miss the release of the full interview to hear many more stories about the evolution of the SFF  and the sometimes outrageous goings-on behind the scenes.

Tell US about your role at the festival.  MARK FAMIGLIO:  Well, since about 2009, I stepped in for an operational position. I was on the executive board at that point and it was wonderful to see this thing germinate and grow. It was just amazing.  In 2009 after the real estate collapse and this area was like the epicenter, it was time to reevaluate everything that had to do with philanthropy. We looked at it, we had a great budget, we had built up a very substantial and successful festival, but things had to change. A couple of board members asked me to step in and I said, “okay.”  The idea for the Sarasota Festival originally came up in 1997 or 1998. I had been involved in the French Film Festival in ‘93 as a donor.

The French Film Festival, which had a huge presence here for a lot of years,  was an international force.  FAMIGLIO:  I remember going to the Ringling Museum for a black tie event with a thousand people for the French Film Festival. I remember seeing famous actors, actresses, models, beautiful people, men and women strolling down the esplanade. My jaw just dropped. That’s Elle Macpherson and what is she doing here? The guy who was the head of Unifrance was heavily involved and put up the first half a million to get things of seed money. And I think he loaded people on a 737 from Paris and flew people to Sarasota, Florida. It really made its mark. It only lasted a few years, but it was very big and it closed. Bob Johnson was involved in it, Senator Johnson at the time. The thought was to generate economic activity and to bring a high end kind of cultural feeling about Sarasota, which you already kind of had, but they wanted to cement that. I got involved as a donor and I was definitely not a film guy, but I enjoyed watching Sarasota react to all this celebrity and it was international celebrity. I remember Gerard Depardieu coming into the opera house and I remember the hubbub up front and I’m parked somewhere standing on a wall watching this going, “wow”. Little did I know that 10, 15 years later I’d be the one calling the shots and involving myself more deeply.

After the French Film Festival ended, WE were approached by “the two Myrnas” and they asked us if we wanted to help start a new film festival. we were already working 26 hours a day on our newly-founded magazine at that moment, but we signed up to be the first ever corporate sponsor. FAMIGLIO:  I didn’t know that. That would’ve been interesting. Consider yourself very fortunate that you said “no!” Of course, the two Myrnas were literally giants in the social scene and the philanthropic scene. They led large groups of people and I’m so glad to hear that because they’re both such fabulous, warm, loving people.

Then at some point still in the early stages, they brought in the first executive director, Jody Kielbasa, who you and I worked very closely with for many years.  FAMIGLIO:   I love Jody. Jody was a smart guy, a character. Eh, he pissed some people off, but you know what, he got things done and he did grow the festival. He was not a businessman and that was potentially what hurt that growth. The entire country, the entire region was suffering at that point. I don’t fault him. When I was asked to see about taking over, it was really more because of financial support. I could not even have imagined having to stand in front of people and make a speech. I just wouldn’t do that. I was scared and in the beginning they’d have the teleprompters and everything and I quickly pulled a Donald Trump and ignored them because I just couldn’t really focus on them. I would just start ad libbing. There were some bills that hadn’t been paid. By the time I was able to dig in and see what was actually owed, it was almost double what they thought in the beginning. I kept saying, “Hey, I’m the janitor. I’m cleaning things up. That’s the best I can do.” We put an infusion of capital and then we looked to the community to support us. Some people wanted to bankrupt it. Just bankrupt it. I heard that a million times. I’m like, “Well, maybe we don’t have to.” I didn’t think that was the solution. Maybe people would’ve forgotten in a year or two, but there was so much good work that had gone into developing the festival. In a relatively short period of time, with the guests that came in and because of the dollars that were spent, it had established an international reputation. I very simply thought, ‘why blow this?’ 

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You just said it wasn’t about the films, it was about the organization. Are you a big film watcher? FAMIGLIO:  I like music. Well, I’ve said this before, probably in your magazine, but my top films are Harold and Maude, which I loved, I loved him when he took a Jaguar, I think, and converted it to a hearse. The Cat Stevens soundtrack really got me and GodfatherI and II, which is all about my heritage, what can I say? Those are my favorite films. 

Was there a film festival moment that stuck with you, that inspired you?  FAMIGLIO:  One was with Bob Altman, the director. I picked him up in New York and he flew down and we gave him an award. It was on the 10th anniversary I believe. We were at the Longboat Key Club. We were in an air conditioned tent on the Gulf. It was an amazing thing, and the Longboat Key Club was a wonderful sponsor during those years. I mean, wonderful isn’t even the word. They kind of made things happen and it was wonderful. He came, we had some great people. We had a bunch of directors we were honoring. Bob was one of my favorites. We had a bunch of actors. I think it was the year Charlize Theron was there, and we had the governor at the time. Charlie Crist was here too. It was very entertaining, but the moment occurred after the festival when I got a phone call and it’s, “Mark, Bob Altman here.” “Hi Bob.” I’m thinking, is this really Bob Altman? It was, “I want to come to Sarasota and make a film.” “Yes sir. I’d love that to happen. How can I help you? We’re at your service.” I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m just so excited that the guy’s going to come to Sarasota because he’s an icon. Anyway, the cast was like Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey, all these people that had worked with him in some manner or fashion. It was a big cast. He just pays them nothing, but they do it to be able to work with him. Well, he did come down, and we were doing site selections for the film. The Colony Beach Resort at the time still existed, and they agreed to put them up and they were going to put the cast and crew out there. They were going to have barbecues on the beach. That’s how he did it. He made it a big party. Ultimately, it didn’t happen because of trying to get hurricane insurance.  It was a $700,000, $800,000 cost to buy the insurance. And [Altman] prided himself on doing quirky things and getting people to work cheap. I wasn’t in a position to do that, so it didn’t happen, but I’ll never forget that. 

Okay, so I’ll hit you with a bunch of fast questions.  FAMIGLIO:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Celebrity that you were tongue-tied TO be in the presence of.  FAMIGLIO:  John Voight, actually. He had a white scarf, and he was very elegant and commanding. I really, really liked him. We had the one event, I think at Michael’s, somebody had drank a little too much and, “Ratso Rizzo.” I know who it was. I’m not going to mention any names.

I know who that was . There was a time when I would’ve said, but I won’t say. Celebrity that surprised you with their kindness?  FAMIGLIO:  Woody Harrelson. Woody came, yeah, he stayed at my home for three weeks. Then the Merry Pranksters, which was the kind of characters in a movie that he did with a VW bus or something. They stayed in my house. He was a staunch vegan. I ran around the house and I changed out everything. Hemp sheets, magazines about yoga. I mean, I’m trying to seem like you make him feel comfortable and welcome. He was very kind to the point of a childlike innocence. He’d want to wrestle you.

Celebrity you thought you were going to have to bail out OF JAIL?  FAMIGLIO:  Well, we did have a newspaper reporter that did get arrested on Longboat Key. Oh my God. We’ve got to keep it private. I’m not going to name any names, but it’s another publication. You know what, I got to know the gal later, and she’s a lovely gal, but she really liked the guy who was in The Hobbit. She showed up outside his hotel room and was screaming.

I thought the answer was going to be Gary Busey. FAMIGLIO:  No Busey. Forget Busey. Neil, McCurry was the president for a year or two back in the early 2000s. He decides he’s going to bring Gary into his house and his family and really enjoy it, ‘cause Busey was a big star, and he was absolutely bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. I remember getting a phone call, “You want to take Busey off my hands?” I’m like, “Why? What happened? What’s going on?” The best thing about Busey when he hit on Katherine Harris at the Ritz at a formal function.

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That wasn’t Busey. That was Harrelson. That was Woody Harrelson. I WAS THERE. Katherine Harris was persona non grata for the left, because OF the elections. He was smitten by her. FAMIGLIO:  That’s right. He did. I didn’t tell Woody that night that I was giving him an award and he would have to make a speech. He didn’t know. He’s sitting at the table and I remember he got just lettuce, regular iceberg lettuce and put wine vinegar on it, and that was his meal. Because he was a raw foodist. I said something about Woody and tonight we’re going to honor Woody and what he’s like, I remember him looking at me and he was wearing a light blue suit that he told me the tailor was Cary Grant’s tailor. He just stopped eating, and very cool, walked up to the podium at the Ritz. I think we had about 800 people, something like that, and he was amazing. He was absolutely amazing. Another outrageous story was Aerosmith. I mean, that was ridiculous. It’s got estranged family members coming together, surprise guests, other celebrities showing up. A private, spontaneous Aerosmith concert. It was very touching, very emotional, and we were part of that. The film festival is what precipitated all that. It was very dramatic. Who was there? Farrah Faucet. Penny Marshall. These are icons of course, should I tell that story?

We’ve run out of space for the magazine, but let’s keep going and we can include that story in the podcast!