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Building a Hollywood Film Festival

Cruisewave_4 I keep being surprised by the LA Times' willingness to run puff-jobs on entrepreneur Carlos de Abreu's Hollywood Film Festival, a cannily constructed facade which honors stars and filmmakers and craftspeople and lines the pockets of Mr. de Abreu, a clever industry player. Finally, today's NYT tells it like it is:

In Mr. de Abreu’s retelling, he had an awards show in mind all along, but was urged by friends to try a film festival. So he created both. Yet while the awards show now looms large on the industry’s fall calendar, and while the Hollywood Film Festival has turned up discoveries like the director Craig Brewer, it is still not a rival to independent film festivals like Sundance, Telluride or the New York Film Festival. Its premieres are also not the cream of the crop: last year’s opening feature was the action-comedy “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.” This year’s is the family film “Flicka.”

Moreover, unlike those and many other film festivals — and even the Golden Globes, whose organizers give away millions of dollars to charity — Mr. de Abreu’s business, including both the film festival and the awards show, is anything but a nonprofit enterprise. He declined to reveal its revenues but insisted he was not getting rich: his Mercedes, he said, is 16 years old.

Mr. de Abreu said he did once establish a philanthropy called the Hollywood Film Foundation, but that it was no longer active. Asked why, he said: “I don’t have time for everything.”

The deal with de Abreu is this. He served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in Mozambique before being forced out of the country in 1975 by the communist regime. He came to Hollywood after he got tired of being a marketing director for the jeweler Cartier. He took classes at UCLA, hoping to become a screenwriter. He got a foothold in the film industry by putting on conferences every two months to give 100-200 screenwriters at a time the chance to pitch their stories to Hollywood buyers. He started giving out the Hollywood Screenplay Discovery Awards, and co-wrote with Howard Smith a book for Random House called Opening the Door to Hollywood. He sent scripts to agencies, and in 1996 Ted Kotcheff optioned two of the winners' screenplays.

De Abreu got involved with the internet in 1994, started a website, and collected over 3000 domain names, all related to Hollywood, including the Hollywood Film Festival, which he launched in 1996. Married to well-connected TV actress Janice Pennington (The Price is Right), de Abreu worked his way up the Hollywood social ladder, throwing dinner parties and becoming friendly with the likes of Kotcheff, Mark Rydell, Sherry Lansing and Mike Medavoy (a fest award winner this year, for the flop All the King's Men). De Abreu took advantage of his social contacts with agents and studio heads when he mounted the festival, which wasn't taken seriously until he hired the powerhouse PR firm PMKHBH to do PR (now he hires different agencies every year) and in 2002 brought on their client, respected producer Paula Wagner, a former CAA agent, as his co-chair. Her producing partner Tom Cruise then attended the screening of their presentation Narc. After Cruise, many more stars such as Harrison Ford followed him down the red carpet, either as presenters or award winners. This year's presenters include the likes of Cliint Eastood, Bill Condon, Robert De Niro, Nic Cage and Benicio del Toro.

De Abreu moved the festival from October to August and back to October again to best capitalize on the awards season. He recognized that if you give someone who is campaigning for an Oscar an award, they will come. That was all he had to do. "It so happens that the Oscars moving up by one month worked fantastically with our dates," he says. "The Oscars are the biggest promotional vehicle of all for those being honored." This year the Hollywood Fest is covering up the pool at the Beverly Hilton and throwing an after party for 1100 people complete with poker tables and cigar clubs, he says: "The Hollywood Film Festival is fun, it's a celebration."

The actual festival film programming of 80 films tends to be light also-rans leftover from other festivals, he admits: "You can't get 20 real previews, the market doesn't bear it anymore." The screenings serve as a backdrop for the big awards night when everyone walks the red carpet to accept their prize. "A good thing about being independent is we can do as we please, just as long as the filmmaker benefits. I make the final decisions. As executive director, it's my event, my vision. I'm the only man in Hollywood who doesn't want to be a producer. I'm a felicitator for everybody: agents, managers, producers, studios."

There is no organization, no philanthropic goal behind The Hollywood Film Festival, beyond de Abreu's hope that he is "bridging the gap between established Hollywood and emerging talent," he says. Even the Golden Globes give some of their profits to charity. This festival is a business enterprise, selling tickets, VIP passes, sponsorships and studio tables. How much money does it make? "I don't want to talk about it," de Abreu says. "We're private. It's nobody's business."


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