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Harold Blank is the owner of the Palace 9 movie theater in South Burlington, VT and a key partner for the past two years of the Vermont International Film Festival. For this year's festival, Mr. Blank initiated the first VTIFF Person of Year Award presented to a Vermont resident who is committed to excellence in the motion picture industry--honoring Luis Guzmán as its first recipient--and was responsible for diversifying the historically human rights centered festival by bringing in such films as the award-winning Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire , George Clooney's The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Young Victoria, starring Emily Blunt, Jim Broadbent and Miranda Richardson.

nthWORD: Welcome Harold and thank you for speaking with me today...So tell us, how did you first start out in the entertainment industry?

HB: [laughs]It goes way back. In college I was in the music business. I used to do psychedelic light shows back in the late sixties. I did them for small bands like Jimi Hendrix and Cream at a place called The Factory in Madison, Wisconsin. I got out of school and fell into the film piece of it, had to find a job. I ended up working in a movie theater, and it grew, from being manager in film theaters to being a film buyer, did some cinema ownership in Boston in the late seventies and eighties.

nthWORD: Can you tell me about the film buying piece. How do you go about deciding what films you buy for what area?

HB: Well, it's very different from when I used to buy many years ago than today. I was buying films for theaters that had 2, 3, or 4 screens and was competing for film and bidding on film, versus today in a 10-plex or 12-plex or even a 24-plex. The choice factor of trying to pick a film was more difficult years ago. It becomes a bit of a guessing game, which stars, which directors. Nowadays, all of them are showed before they open. I do have people in New York who advise me in the buying of films. I tell them what to play; they act as a connection to the distribution companies. I could do my own film buying, but I prefer not to.

nthWORD: I read an article recently that the Academy of Motion Pictures just made a $400,000 dollar donation to film festivals around the country. Will that come into Vermont?

HB: No, but I'm going to call Tom Sherak, who was just promoted to the head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Who's actually a Boston boy. The objective is to make these festivals stronger because they promote film. What I try to do in my small little bit of pie up here in Burlington with the two theaters is to make film interesting. The objective is to keep film in front of people, to keep talking about film. And that's why I tried to get involved in the festival, to broaden its base, to create some excitement with it. I think we did a good job this year with a limited budget.

nthWORD: This is your second year partnering with the VTIFF. Can you tell me how this came about?

HB: I sought the partnership out. I wanted to get involved. What I saw was a floundering, failing festival -- and this isn't against what they've done in the past which was born out of human rights...but the pictures, everything was doom and gloom. My objective was to broaden the genre of pictures that were shown at the festival and to broaden the activities surrounding the festival. We had a party this year for Luis Guzmán. Next year I want to make that bigger and have a band and other stuff happening. The objective is to grow this festival into an exciting event. Although this year we put it under one roof, I'd like to see it spread out around town. I'd like to see it at the Majestic, and at the Roxy. We'll see what happens.

nthWORD: Like the festival down in Savannah, which is growing every year, it's exciting to see the community get behind it--

HB: Get behind it, and hopefully get a little more on the fundraising aspect, more donations from larger businesses.

nthWORD: So you approached the Board of Directors--

HB: I approached Deb Ellis and said I'd like to get involved. It was sort of floundering. Last year we just threw something together in August for October that was only four days long, that had limited advertising. This year we did ten days. We put together a budget, we took out ads. We need to get more support from distribution. I had good support from Lionsgate, who gave us Precious, which opened to an enormous audience, we got Men Who Stare at Goats from Overture Pictures, we got Young Victoria from Apparition. Sony Classics turned me down. I have no idea why. So one of the things I need to do now is go show them what we did and say hey guys, this is about selling film, about promoting film, about making people more aware of film, and by turning me down is slapping your own film in the face. My job now is to go to people I know in the business and hope to expand it to make sure next year all the distribution companies support us.

nthWORD: The VTIFF was started in 1985, born out of the anti-nuclear movement and it's mission was very pro-activism--

HB: A lot of the support was from activist type people. And that's not bad. There's a place in the festival for that type of film. I don't want to ditch those films, but I want to broaden the base. Even kids. I'd like to do something next year that gets kids involved in film. To find a way to maybe do a seminar with kids. Why can't we have kid films, or kids under the age of sixteen submit films. The other thing I'd like to do is, the Toronto Film Festival takes place 5 to 6 weeks before us. There is an enormous number of Canadian films in that festival and I know that they then take a group of films that don't find distribution companies and get them into smaller festivals around Canada. I'd like to have a Canadian piece to our festival seeing how we're so close to the border. Then there's the Montreal connection. We can perhaps market this festival in Montreal.

nthWORD: And they also have a festival--

HB: Yes. What I'd like to do is go see the people who run that festival and see how we can benefit each other. We'll market your festival in theaters, and you reciprocate. So look for some cross-marketing.

nthWORD: The VTIFF website mentions a dramatic redefinition--

HB: This is all part of it. We honored Luis this year. The objective is to honor a person who lives in VT who is a contributor to the industry. There are a lot of people up here. I think that Donald Sutherland has a place up here. There are some screen writers, one of the writers who did Ironman lives in South Burlington. I'd like to look at what's out next year and coordinate and see who we can pick next year, then we build an event around it.

nthWORD: When I saw that Luis was going to be honored, I was excited - I'm a big fan of his - tell me, how was that connection made?

HB: Tim Cavanaugh is a friend of his and I knew Tim and approached him and said we'd like to do it. And he contacted Luis for us, and it worked out with his schedule. Luis got a nice honor too. These people are humble too, they're like all of us. I think coming from Puerto Rico, being a foreigner, that in America they want to honor me.

nthWORD: Tell me about the VT Filmmakers piece?

HB: That's a lot of Debbie, and the previous festivals. Which I think is great. It's about film. If we can inspire young filmmakers, there's some pretty good talent up here. You mentioned Liz Canner, whose Orgasm Inc. won an award this year. Hopefully we can expand that next year, to get the films seen by more people. The whole thing is to spread the word on film, and have it talked about for ten days in the newspapers, talked about on the radio, and create an excitement about film, so we can grow our industry.

nthWORD: What has been the public response to this year's festival?

HB: It's been terrific. Our attendance was well up over last year. We sold out a few pictures, which is a positive, like Precious. We had an animated picture, which I think is important. I think we're on our way, so I'm thrilled.

nthWORD: Well congratulations and thank you for putting on such a great festival here in Vermont.

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