During many of the world’s biggest film festivals, like Cannes and Sundance, major Hollywood stars descend into town en masse, but then are gone just as quickly. The prestigious Hamptons International Film Festival sees an equally elite audience, yet it retains a small-town vibe. Then again, Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld and Alec Baldwin do live down the street. “I got involved with HIFF a year or two after it began,” says the Oscar-nominated actor/director Bob Balaban, who lives in Bridgehampton. “The idea of a small, serious, well-curated film festival right under my nose was too intriguing not to jump right in.”
The thrust of the festival monopolizes the Hamptons over five days in October, this year taking place Oct. 4 through 8. More than 125 movies—from feature films to shorts from local talents—are screened at venues around the East End. “We tick the boxes of everything a film fest is supposed to be and should be, and have a little bit of something for everybody,” says HIFF Executive Director Anne Chaisson.
While the biggest draw happens over five days in the fall, the HIFF is a year-round organization, offering screenings, workshops, a Screenwriter’s Lab and other programming. “I personally get quite involved with the Screenwriter’s Workshop, where every spring several scripts are chosen from hundreds submitted and then the winners are mentored by industry professionals; many of these movies have been made into feature films—how exciting is that!” says actress Judy Licht, a HIFF board member for more than 15 years. “I’ve watched with an enormous sense of both pride and fulfillment as it has grown from a sweet, granola-headed resort happening into the major cultural event it now is. Knowing I have been a part of this is enormously gratifying.”
This year, SummerDocs, HIFF’s documentary series hosted by cochairman Alec Baldwin and the festival’s artistic director, David Nugent, celebrates its 10th anniversary. A decade ago, says Chaisson, an event celebrating documentaries was unheard of; now the events, which include a screening and panel discussion with Baldwin, Nugent and the filmmakers, often sell out before the titles are announced. Considering the Hamptons audience—which includes many who are philanthropically inclined and Oscar voters—it’s easy to understand why filmmakers vie to be included in the series that kicked off with a screening of The Cove and panel emceed by Baldwin and Nugent, with Louie Psihoyos and Fisher Stevens; less than a year later, Baldwin was hosting the Oscars and Psihoyos and Stevens were on stage thanking the Academy.
“We showed every film that won every major category at the Oscars last year,” says Chaisson. “We’ve just been knocking it out of the park, not that we want to be known as a film festival that only has Academy Award-winning films, because we have a lot more than that, but it’s incredible.”
The HIFF also offers a unique opportunity for audiences and filmmakers to have a closer proximity to icons of the industry. Chaisson cites a few fun instances, such as a young talent who made a short film about Steven Spielberg only to have the director, a longtime Hamptons resident, attend.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the HIFF and Chaisson says she certainly felt the weight of the milestone, but was excited to mark the occasion with numerous nods to the local community. The festival opened with a screening of Itzhak, made by a local filmmaker, about Itzhak Perlman, who runs a music program in the Hamptons, shown at one of the area’s most iconic destinations, Guild Hall. “This is what the best of the best film festivals do,” says Chaisson. “They tie what’s so important about an area and a community into great pieces of art and makes sure you celebrate it.”
Whether it’s the awards, or the Variety 10 Actors to Watch class—which last year recognized Timothée Chalamet, Daveed Diggs, Daniel Kaluuya and Kumail Nanjiani, among others—the HIFF brings the film industry’s best and brightest together with an appreciative audience in a community atmosphere where all are welcomed.
“I happen to love watching the odd little foreign films they screen at the festival. They never look very inviting; they usually have an unwashed man in a dirty undershirt weeping in the one sheet. They tend to be crammed with life and invention and emotion. I’ve discovered some utterly unknown and never to be seen again worlds that have haunted me for years. They’re just one more reason I love being a part of this festival,” says Balaban. “Over the years I helped produce and create a bunch of funny little improvised animated intros to the festival’s films. Alec Baldwin and I voiced them. They were great fun to do. Alec constantly amazed me with his quick wit and the audience always seemed to enjoy them. They played for six or seven years. I would sweep the popcorn off the floor of the theater that’s how much I admire HIFF.”
The 26th annual Hamptons International Film Festival takes place Oct. 4 through 8. hamptonsfilmfest.org.