Alan Inkles has been called one of the nicest guys on campus and one of the smartest. He is also energetic, dedicated and unabashedly passionate about theater and film — traits that come in handy in his roles as director of the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University and founder and director of the Stony Brook Film Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year on July 16–25.
Starting out as an actor more than 35 years ago and then as part-time theater manager at Staller, he built the Staller Center into what it is today, a cultural mecca for both the University and the surrounding communities. Every year he and his team work tirelessly to bring an outstanding program of classics in music, dance and theater as well as family and popular entertainment to campus. And every summer they pull out all the stops and fly in filmmakers and actors from around the world for the Stony Brook Film Festival, 10 days of independent film premieres culminating in the awarding of Jury, Audience and Grand prizes.
In advance of this year’s Film Festival, presented for the first time by Island Federal Credit Union, Inkles opened up about his love for the theater, how the Festival has grown into the highly anticipated event that it is today, and his favorite movies — some of which may surprise you.
Q: What does it take to put on a film festival of this magnitude every summer?
Alan Inkles: Commitment. My whole team is committed. You have to be committed in this business because it is just non-stop. We’re a film festival, but the rest of the year, we’re booking next year’s shows. That doesn’t stop. We’re an arts center. We’re the only performing arts center that’s part of a university that produces a major film festival in the summer with the same team that puts on the programming for the rest of the year. So it’s a lot of work, but if you’re not passionate about it, then it really is work.
Q: Where does your love of film and theater come from?
Inkles: In 7th grade, I auditioned for the play A Christmas Carol and got the part of Scrooge. I fell in love with the theater. After high school, I went to UCLA to play soccer, then switched immediately to Cal State Northridge for theater, got an agent and tried to do some acting. I did a few TV pilots that never got picked up. I did a few commercials. I went to auditions, but either I didn’t look the part or something. I was too impatient to be an actor, and I didn’t love the business out in LA.
So I came back to New York because my family and my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, lived here, and I enrolled at Stony Brook. I studied a little with [acting teacher] Stella Adler, did a little off-off Broadway work, and then hurt my knee in a production of Romeo and Juliet. I had just graduated from Stony Brook, so I went to Terry Netter, who was the Staller Center director, and asked him for a job because I couldn’t act for a while, and he gave me a part-time job as the theater manager. When the provost came to Terry a year later and said he wanted to do something that summer, I suggested theater, because that was my background. For the next nine or 10 years, I brought theater companies here from all over Europe and loved it. I forgot all about acting.
So this is a long answer to your question of how this became part of my makeup — loving the theater. And the reason I got a lot of shows here was because I never talked like a businessman. I would say how much I loved their work.
Q: In 1995, you came up with the idea for the Stony Brook Film Festival. How did it start?
Inkles: Terry Netter and I decided we needed to add something really cool for the summer. I wanted to do something with film, because all the big screens were gone. So we did some research and the Stallers [who endowed the Center] helped us raise the money to buy a 30-foot screen. Right after we bought that, we had a flood and lost the screen in the trap room. So we bought a 40-foot screen to replace it. It’s the largest screen on Long Island, and the way you really want to see a film.
So, how did the Festival start? It started by accident. Our first season was a summer of Steven Spielberg films. I wanted to show older films, a mix of films. But we couldn’t get the prints. The older films were gone. I did an Academy Award weekend 15 years ago and built it around not the best films, but the only ones we could get prints for.
Plus with VHS and DVD, everyone owns the old films, so why come out to see a film you can see at home? I realized that I had to do something different.
Q: You’ve said that the Sundance Film Festival inspired you.
Inkles: Yes, I went to Sundance in 1999 and went nuts. I loved the idea of new films and filmmakers and actors.
Q: How has the Stony Brook Film Festival evolved since those early days?
Inkles: In the beginning, I begged people to come to it and gave away tickets. It took seven or eight years of convincing people. The first couple of years, we did four weekends in the summer. Once we started the Sundance thing, it’s been 10 days. We started with showing 70 to 80 movies during the days and evenings. I stopped days because it’s Long Island and it’s summer. If it rains, great. But I can’t do my rain dance.
Seven or eight years ago, we started cutting back to 35, 40 films. Because, let’s face it, if I go to Sundance for five days, how many films do I see? Fifteen, if I’m lucky? And I had to choose those from 200 films months in advance. At Stony Brook, I’m doing the choosing for you — my colleagues and I.
So when you come to Stony Brook, you see the same number of films — two or three a night — that I’ve paid $2,000 to see at Sundance. When I’ve chosen the wrong film at Sundance, I get angry because there are 10 others that I could have gone to at the same time. At least here you can say, “Alan stinks. He picked a bad film.” [Laughs]
Q: How many film entries do you watch to find the 40 for the Festival?
Inkles: Each year between 700 and 800 films. Short films. Feature films. My team helps me. Kent Marks, my contracts administrator, knows a lot about films and we worked on this together this year. But I make the final decision.
We might have a year with a lot of foreign films, or American films or heavy films. But you try to balance it. I don’t want the night to be so heavy or so light, and I don’t want to show a holocaust short and a British comedy in the same screening slot.
Q: What do you look for in a film?
Inkles: I’ve been in the business long enough to know what a good actor is, and that’s where it starts when you’re talking about narrative films. We do a lot of narrative films, because that’s what our audience wants. They want a good story. We’re not about experimental films; we do some, but we’re not about that. And while we do a handful of documentaries, they’re typically not our focus.
It starts with the actor. If the acting is not good, that’s the quickest way to get me to turn off the film. I don’t charge an entry fee, so I don’t feel guilty about turning it off. We’re one of the few film festivals that don’t charge a fee. I don’t believe in it. I think it’s awful to charge these filmmakers who have spent every dime they have to make their film.
Q: What happens to the films after the festival?
Inkles: Great question. Some of them — the American ones — have a better chance of getting picked up for distribution. The week after the festival, I’ll call up distributors that we’re close with and tell them that my audience really loved a film.
The foreign language films are very tough. For a lot of these films, there’s no market in America. But at least they had a foreign life. And they all love to play in America.
Q: Do you have any favorite films?
Inkles: The problem is, you won’t know them. For My Father is a brilliant film we showed, an Israeli film. It was probably my favorite film. It’s about a suicide bomber who goes to Israel and is about to blow up and his switch breaks, so he has to move in with an Israeli man because he can’t get the part until the next day. And you find out why he’s doing this — it’s for his father. It won our Grand Prize seven or eight years ago. Swimming Upstream and Children of Glory are two more of my favorites. So films we’ve sort of discovered and done great things for become my babies and my favorite films.
Of the mainstream films, I actually have wacky taste. I will like a film like Meet Joe Black, with Brad Pitt. I love City Slickers and Billy Crystal. I love Mel Brooks films. I loved Knocked Up. I thought it was one of the funniest movies of all time. I loved Bridesmaids. Some are pretty stupid, but I loved Ted. I thought it was hysterical! I like fantasy films like Heaven Can Wait and Stardust. Can I tell you I love Citizen Kane? It’s a good movie. It’s OK.
Q: What makes your Film Festival so popular?
Inkles: First of all, it’s Sundance in your own backyard. If you can get to Sundance, great, but this is the closest that many people will ever come. And I’m telling you, in some cases, the quality of films is better because a bunch of different committees aren’t picking the films. I don’t expect you to love every film I pick, but I want to challenge you.
I think we’re doing something that no other university is doing around the country or anywhere in the summer, and only at night so you can still enjoy your summer days. It really is a very special thing for this community, and I’ve heard from them that they’re so grateful they can see the kind of films they can’t see anywhere else.
And so for 10 days, we become Sundance, we become Cannes, we become Toronto. The only difference is, you don’t have to fly in; you can work your regular work schedule and enjoy the 10 days of the Festival at night. Or you can plan your vacation around it, which is what some people do.
Q: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about going to the Film Festival for the first time?
Inkles: Get the pass. It’s only $85. You’d pay that for just one movie at Sundance. We keep it inexpensive so you don’t have to decide which films to see. Even if you only go to five or six of them, it pays for itself. If you buy a ticket for just one movie, it may be sold out if it’s a big film. If you want, you can buy a Gold Pass for $225, and you get to sit with the filmmakers and actors in a reserved seating area. That you can’t touch for under $1,000 at Sundance, and it includes the opening and closing night parties.
Q: Do you ever go to a movie just for fun?
Inkles: I do, I do. It’s funny. Typically about a week before the Festival, my wife and I will go to Port Jeff Cinemas to see a movie, and I’ll walk in and one of two things happens: It’s a small community, so either someone says, “Oh my God, how can you go out and see another movie — don’t you see enough?” or someone will apologize to me for being there.
And I’ll say, “Look, I don’t have ownership of you. “I go, too!” [Laughs]
— Patricia Sarica
For more information about the Stony Brook Film Festival go to www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com or call (631) 632-ARTS.