A Day's Work

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The Commonspace

May 2003 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

Screening At The Top Of My Lungs
By Chris Clark

Fade in. Early spring 1998. Chris, man in his mid-thirties, is burnt out to a crisp on his former career managing restaurants. He elects to take a voluntary job time-out in order to chill and figure out what he wants to do when he grows up. The experiment started well enough, but he eventually realizes that he will never completely grow up and still has no clue what he wants to do with his life. He desperately wants to put his best foot forward somewhere, but where exactly to put it and which direction to take remain elusive goals.

Chris Clark Cut to phone ringing. A friend of a friend calls to ask Chris if he would be interested in volunteering to stuff envelopes one day in the St. Louis International Film Festival office. He vaguely recalls that St. Louis even has such a film thing, and casually agrees to help out for a day or two, since he is a lifelong movie buff. Chris is mighty handy with the envelopes and makes an impression on the director of the festival.

Dissolve to montage of scenes and events from 1998 through the present. Softly seductive choirs of film sirens lure Chris to become more involved with the festival office. He is called into active duty at the next event, managing the other volunteers at the theatre. He is subsequently asked to join the board of directors, hosts a successful fundraiser, and completely coordinates all volunteers and logistics at the next festival. Life as he knows it is about to be over, but it hasn't really sunk in yet.

Out of the blue in spring 2000, Chris is asked to take an open, paid position with the organization. The new job is that of programmer (the person who selects the films and programs for the whole festival). It is to him the crown jewel of possible jobs on the cool scale. It never occurred to him that this job would ever be available to him in St. Louis. The man is ecstatic with his new career and enjoys the success of his efforts. The press and public are pleased as well. Throughout the year he attends other festivals across the country to look for potential films to bring home to St. Louis. Life is very good.

Slow dissolve to late winter of 2003. The executive director takes a job elsewhere and Chris is asked to take over the leadership of the organization. He proudly and happily agrees.

Cut to spring of 2003. Chris reads an e-mail from The Commonspace asking him to write a piece about his job. He fires up Word, defiantly smirks at the omnipotent cursor winking at him, and gets started.

Fade to black. Polite applause. Lights go up. Reality sets in.

My name is Chris Clark. I am the Managing & Artistic Director of Cinema St. Louis, which is the new, official title of the organization that presents the St. Louis International Film Festival, the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, the CinemaSpoke screenplay competition, and a variety of other film-related special events throughout the year. 2003 marks the 12th anniversary of the festival itself and the beginning of a period of great expansion to our range of events and public programs.

It is our goal and sacred mission to spread the gospel of the cinema to the citizens of the St. Louis metropolitan area and beyond. Over the past few years, Cinema St. Louis has achieved spectacular success and attention from local audiences as well as the international film community. To paraphrase from our own artistic statement, we discover something about ourselves through the examination of the human experience when we open our minds to other cultures via world cinema.

When Amanda e'd me to ask if I would do this, I had to chuckle to myself. Usually asking me to talk about what I do can be a dangerous thing. My eyes light up, my hands start gesturing wildly to punctuate raging streams of sentences and I begin to talk at bionic speed levels. I don't just like what I do, but deeply love it. My serendipitous tale of how I came to be here is a happy addendum to the "it helps who you know in St. Louis" book. I happened to simultaneously be in several right spots at exactly the right time. I am profoundly grateful about how lucky I have been to arrive intact at this part of my professional journey. Very lucky indeed.

Attempting to articulate what I do on any given day is difficult at best. The overused "multitasking" is the best term I can think of at the moment. The job of putting together a major ten-day event like the St. Louis International Film Festival takes a full year of planning. Just like the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, as soon as one event is over we return the films, send out the press releases, assess what we have done, sleep for a few days and then start over for the following year. In my capacity as programmer for the festival, I may view or consider several hundred films before I settle on the final selections. It is a highly subjective process and I take great pains to choose what I consider to be the most exciting and eclectic mixture of genres, styles and sensibilities from the films available to me in any given year. The 11th annual festival in 2002 featured 93 distinct programs that included 27 documentaries, 37 international films, 101 short subjects and over a dozen sizzling American independents.

"So you sit around and watch movies all day, huh? And get paid for it? Well, you suck!" is a common response from friends and acquaintances. Okay, so yes, I do have two computers and a rather nice TV/VCR combo in my office, plus three other monitors, six more VCRs and a DVD player in the next room. I need and use them all. Honestly I do. And I don't sit around in the office and watch movies all day — last year I also did that in Palm Springs, Seattle, Memphis, Nashville and Champaign-Urbana.

Perhaps the coolest of the many cool parts of my gig here is attending other festivals to watch films, meet filmmakers, commune with my comrades in other cities and go to endless cocktail parties with all levels of celebrities, real and imagined. I usually don't care too much about that sort of thing, but having a close encounter with Angelica Huston last year in Santa Barbara was rather nice. It is hard to pitch to my friends how hard it can be to do the festival thing, but trust me when I say it gets grueling to watch 40 or so in a period of 10 days. I do manage to survive it all somehow. If it makes the gentle reader feel any better, I suffer sometimes when the films are tedious and boring. Sometimes a whole day is wasted with bad film choices. (Well, it was worth a shot.)

I do a few hundred other things as well. They include wrangling a massive database of films in consideration, setting the schedule, writing the program book notes, obtaining and scanning the images, doing the press releases, building and maintaining our website, negotiating with filmmakers and distributors all over the planet, coordinating inbound and outbound shipping of all films, and introducing as many of the films as possible. I currently hold two official office titles: resident computer geek and self-proclaimed "king of wires."

The Internet and e-mail are crucial elements to how I conduct business with the world film community. Last year our board treasurer questioned how low our phone bill seemed. While I am indeed on the phone constantly, it has become unnecessary to spend large amounts of time on long-distance domestic or international calls. Have you ever tried to fax somebody in India? It's not an easy task.

Simultaneously throughout the year, we may be working on as many as six other events of various shapes and sizes. This spring, for example, we had an Oscar bash, hosted several single film screenings about town, and hired a new development director. In addition to that I am also currently working on setting the schedule for the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, which is a five-day summer event dedicated to promoting the talents of filmmakers from the St. Louis area. Many of these works will receive further recognition by being screened again this fall in the festival.

Each day I watch all or part of the constant influx of tapes that come across my desk. I know a winner when I see it almost immediately and sense the rotten eggs even before they begin to smell. I realize that my own personal tastes run to the peculiar and bizarre sometimes, so an even bigger challenge sometimes can be choosing films that the rest of the population will like, and hopefully love. Anyone who has ever worked on a large event from start to finish has experienced what I call the rocket-launch sensation: you're strapped in, committed, and then it's show time.

There is a glamour factor of sorts that keeps things fresh — who doesn't like to see or do something way before all the other kids do? I love hearing several languages being spoken at once in the lobby of the Tivoli during the festival and the proud looks of the young local filmmakers when the crowd applauds the credits at the end of their first film. This is the part of the shuttle flight when I realize that all is well and my job and professional existence are going to be okay.

I also secretly enjoy that people are jealous of my good fortune in getting paid for this. What Charlton Heston said about guns to the NRA in Bowling for Columbine, I will say about my job. You can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Chris Clark recommends "X2" and "The Man Without a Past" for your May viewing pleasure.

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