Hollywood's First Major Film Festival, 1971-1985

Filmex, more formally the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, was dreamt up in 1969-'70 over a couple of lunches by famed director George Cukor and Philip Chamberlin, director of special projects for the motion picture academy. By today's standards, there were astonishingly few major film festivals in America; the oldest, San Francisco, only went back to 1957, and New York's vaunted Lincoln Center event began in 1963. It seemed obvious to the two men that Los Angeles, the film capital, must have a festival. The tax incorporation papers were signed in the dining room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, so for decades to come, Filmex's legal address remained 7000 Hollywood Boulevard.

Cukor and Chamberlin hired a young boss for the new festival, and he would make the festival a legend—in fact, he would become as legendary as Filmex itself. He had run all night movie marathons at the UCLA film school and worked as a staff designer before the studios were driven to liquidate their Golden Age backlot production departments in the late Sixties. If Gary Essert had any lack of confidence, he never showed it, then or ever.

Filmex opened at Grauman's Chinese Theater in 1971, and with one interruption (there was no Filmex in 1973) "GE" would run the festival with an iron hand for the next dozen years. He was mercurial, demanding, stylish and incredibly stubborn. He certainly knew his movies, and had his favorites on the world scene, but he worked through programmers, panels of other film experts who chose the films, choosing instead to focus on the grandeur and sense of moment in an event. Essert was less a bookish film scholar than he was an imperious impresario of high culture, a master Hollywood showman without a camera.

Every workday with Gary Essert was a quest for the more perfect projection machine, the perfect printer of party invitations, and the flawlessly up to date guest list meticulously stocked with the great, the good, and the merely rich. In today's terms, he was the Steve Jobs of our town's foreign film scene, indelibly becoming the face of Filmex.

The early years of Filmex were financially shaky, and the existence of the festival was frequently made possible by indulgent "loans" from wealthy friends, as well as a studied indifference to stiffing creditors and paying staff salaries on time. But by the mid-Seventies, fund raising and box office rose to healthy levels.

By and large, Los Angeles loved its film festival and the times were right for it. International film was never more popular, before or since, and the "Exposition" in the name (which Essert was extremely picky about) promised more than just a mere festival of current films, but special retrospectives as well, archive screenings, and programs of animation and short films. Many of its public events became outrageously big and often outrageously expensive, like recreating the Emerald City in the center of Century City for "The Wiz" in 1978, or using massive amounts of dry ice to create a fog effect for the Elizabeth Taylor tribute at the Music Center. It was a time of reawakened interest in Hollywood history, and many of its legends were still around. You could rub shoulders with Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Wayne and Bette Davis. Gary Essert loved working with the stars, and he loved his job.


A Note From Film Festival "Guru" Carla Sanders

Filmex staffers Patti Crawford, Marsha Tetef, and Carla Sanders

Filmex staffers Patti Crawford, Marsha Tetef, and Carla Sanders

Audrey Hepburn is reported to have said "Everything I learned I learned from the movies." For me, everything I learned I learned from Filmex. Or so it seems sometimes. I first encountered Filmex in 1974 when a card on the bulletin board of the Los Angeles City College Film School office announced free movies in exchange for volunteering at the film festival, then in its third year. Because I had a Volkswagen bus, I quickly became the Filmex volunteer messenger, and continued my involvement with the festival in various capacities until its inevitable end in 1985. What I learned from its mercurial genius director Gary Essert has lasted more than four decades, and has served me in my professional life more than I ever could have imagined. From him I understood that perfection – though not always attained – IS possible. That bigger CAN be better. That showmanship is a marvelous character trait for running a festival, and that cinema is a global and unifying experience.

Out of that involvement came my desire to continue working with film festivals, first AFI Fest and then others, and over the past decade with the American Cinema Foundation. This allowed me to continue my association with Gary McVey, who I had initially met at Filmex and subsequently worked for at AFI Fest. I am proud to work with him to continue the tradition of excellence and commitment that was fostered in that shared experience of Filmex.

— Carla Sanders


Learning From Essert: A Personal Remembrance

To quote George Sanders' bored, disdainful snob in "All About Eve", New York City has rarely shown much interest in "Those, um, film societies in California". I moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and hadn't heard much about Filmex; I quickly found out it was the public film event in Hollywood, and like all of my friends I made it an annual hangout. The festival still had some of its original Mickey Rooney-and-Judy Garland-put-on-a-show young volunteer vibes, and above all it had movies you'd never see anywhere else in Los Angeles.

Friends got each other jobs at the festival, and at the dawn of the Eighties I was one of them. Working at Filmex day to day felt like a studio job, not wholly surprising since that was the system that Gary Essert had trained in; it was a large staff that needed lots of office space, screening facilities, and special equipment for the various departments. As on a studio lot, if you were a clerk, a carpenter or a film editor, you had little to fear from the big boss, but on the other hand, if he was placing a lot of money and responsibility in your hands, you'd better be really good.

I had no trouble with him. I'd organized film festivals at the NYU film school and worked for years at the Bleeker Street Cinema. After my first year there, my role became less and less technical as GE gave me more managerial assignments. By 1982 I was production supervisor.

Filmex Benefit Gala 1984 - Gary McVey and Peter Graves

Filmex Benefit Gala, Playboy Mansion, October 18, 1984
Tradecraft: Gary gets Iron Curtain travel advice from Peter Graves

Gary Essert asked me to investigate what personal computers could do to manage festival operations; the answer was quite a lot, but by the time that telexing, international film traffic, membership, ticketing and payroll were on Filmex computers, GE was gone after a stormy fight with the Filmex board of trustees. He gave me a fine recommendation letter to Tom Wilhite, chairman of Disney, who would also be out of a job shortly. Instead, I stayed with the festival, which remained independent for three more years before it was merged into the American Film Institute.

In the festival world I've had three mentors: Gary Essert taught me how to run a show; Ken Wlaschin, how to run it with kindness; and Ron Holloway, something about how to do it with kindness and in Europe.

—Gary McVey