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Desert Festival Blooms: Bono's brainchild celebrates 25th.

THE PALM SPRINGS Intl. Film Festival has come a long way since its bow in 1990, when the awards ceremony was held in the home basement of then-mayor Sonny Bono, who conceived the event as a way to promote Palm Springs as a major world tourism destination. Its sole honoree was Lucille Ball, who, while nothing to sneeze at, was but a shadow of what the festival has shaped up to be, a 12-day star-studded spectacle and harbinger of Oscar gold.

This year's festival, which kicks off Jan. 3 and will draw 135,000 attendees, marks its 25th anniversary in a manner that bears little resemblance to its humble beginnings, when Palm Springs was still a place where sagebrush rolled down the streets and the town, a sleepy hideaway for Rat Pack icons and snowbirds in golf shorts, turned dead after the winter holidays.

"What began as an event for the community has since turned into a national vehicle that brings Oscar contenders to the attention of the national and international public," says festival chairman Harold Matzner, who heads the event's annual Black Tie Awards Gala, which over the years has honored such bigscreen luminaries as Marcello Mastroianni, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt. This year's honorees include Matthew McConaughey for his lead perf in "Dallas Buyers Club," Lupita Nyong'o of "12 Years a Slave," plus director David O. Russell and the cast of "American Hustle," including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Jeremy Rennet and Christian Bale.

"Of the some-650 film festivals in the United States there is nothing like this," boasts Matzner, citing the fest's myriad soirees, hospitality

suites and the 1 billion impressions of media coverage it generates. "We get more people in the seats than Sundance. It's the first major event on the Oscar trail."

With its eclectic palette of global cinematic fare--a showcase of some 180 foreign films from more than 70 countries, the largest selection of foreign language submissions of any festival in the country--the PSIFF has proven a launching pad for such foreign-language Academy Award winners as Gabriele Salvatores' "Mediterraneo" and "Cinema Paradiso," directed by Giuseppe Tornatore.

"Our audience is a savvy, sophisticated one that travels from all over the world," says long-time festival director Darryl MacDonald. "Seventy percent of the audience comes from outside the Coachella Valley. It's a diversified group--we're increasingly capturing a younger demographic--and many of those attending have a broad traveling background and are interested in other cultures. The festival has become a magnet of premieres for international films."

Where Sundance is essentially an industry trade show with a consumer vibe, Palm Springs is more of a filmmakers' festival, with a sharp focus on the pursuit of the cinematic arts. Thanks to its Directors Retreat, currently in its fourth year, the festival doubles as a cinematic think tank, providing a select group of 20 emerging filmmakers with a behind-the-scenes opportunity to engage in a multicultural dialogue addressing the convergence of movies and society.

"We felt there was a need for filmmakers to get to know one another better and discuss their work candidly and without an audience interfering," explains PSIFF artistic director Helen Du Toit of the day-and-a-half event, held at the idyllic Annenberg Retreat Center at Sunnylands in nearby Rancho Mirage. "We create an environment that's safe and intimate and where everybody feels a part of it. It's all about the creative."

Keynote speakers are brought in to help guide the conversation. Past topics have included film financing issues and Arab-language cinema.

This year the World Bank is sponsoring a half-day program about filmmaking and climate control.

"They exchange battle stories and share their experiences and knowledge," MacDonald says. "It's a bonding experience. It's a place for them to relax and breathe."

It was the camaraderie that "Louder Than a Bomb" helmet Jon Siskel developed with fellow filmmakers in 2011 that catapulted the Palm Springs festival experience into a class of its own.

"It was an incredible festival anyway --really unique and special," Siskel proclaims. "But it was the directors retreat that took it to a whole other level."

Tipsheet

WHAT: 25th Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival

WHEN: Jan. 3-13

WHERE: Palm Springs, Calif.

Tipsheet

WHAT: Variety salutes 10 Directors to Watch

WHERE: Parker Palm Springs

WHEN: 11 a.m. Jan. 5. Invitation only

From Fest Aud Fave to Foreign Lingo Oscar

The Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival has become a cinematic bellwether of which films will go on to secure mainstream success, propel directors into stardom and win Academy Awards--namely in the foreign-language category. Beyond a venue in which to screen one's movie in the hopes of inking a deal, tyro directors and industry insiders view the fest as a powerful predictor of grander kudos to come.

To wit, six audience award winners have gone on to win the foreign-language Oscar: "Life Is Beautiful," "The Sea Inside" "The Lives of Others," "Cinema Paradiso," "Mediterraneo" and "Departures." Other films that premiered at the festival, such as "Antonia's Line," directed by the Netherlands' Marleen Gorris, went on to field acclaim and become American audience favorites. Audience winners "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (Sweden) and Quebec entry "Starbuck" inspired successful Hollywood remakes (the latter as Vince Vaughn starrer "Delivery Man").

But it's the roster of directors that brought films to Palm Springs early on in their careers that rings most impressive, a formidable bunch that includes Jean-Luc Besson, M. Night Shyamalan (1), John Madden and Alfonso Cuaron (2), whose boffo smash "Gravity" is a heavyweight contender in this year's Oscar race.

--Malina Saval

Fronds of Palm Springs With a history of recognizing talent before they go on win Oscars, here are some of this year's honorees

Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor

Matthew McConaughey (1)

Wrapping a prolific year that included roles as a homophobic HIV crusader ("Dallas Buyers Club"), a mythic folk figure ("Mud") and an oily stock broker ("The Wolf of Wall Street"), the versatile star has Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" and Cary Fukunaga's HBO series "True Detective" on the horizon.

Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress

Sandra Bullock (2)

Delivering two radically different performances, Bullock pulled off a near-one-woman show in "Gravity," in addition to playing straight woman opposite Melissa McCarthy in "The Heat." The Oscar winner will continue her streak of "acting with nothing," as she put it, with a voice role in 2015's "Despicable Me" spinoff, "Minions."

Career Achievement Award

Bruce Dern (3)

Crowning a prolific career that features more than 80 feature credits, Dern found critical acclaim this year in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," a role that earned him lead actor honors at Cannes. Next year, he'll appear alongside Liam Hemsworth in the Matt Shakman thriller "Cut Bank."

Spotlight Award

Julia Roberts (4)

The actress held her own amid "August: Osage County's" distinguished ensemble, playing the stubborn daughter of a troublesome mother, played by Meryl Streep. Up next, she co-stars with Mark Ruffalo in HBO's "The Normal Heart" telepic, helmed by Ryan Murphy.

Director of the Year Award

Steve McQueen (5)

Add a New York Film Critics Circle win for director to the helmer's growing collection of "12 Years a Slave" prizes. Next, McQueen will co-write an HBO drama he plans to direct for exec producers Russell Simmons and "The King's Speech" duo lain Canning and Emile Sherman.

Breakthrough Performance Award

Lupita Nyong'o (6)

Nyong'o broke onto the film scene this year with her heartbreaking portrayal of Patsey in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," a role for which McQueen auditioned more than 1,000 actresses. Next, she accelerates to "Non-Stop," an action-thriller starring Liam Neeson.

Frederick Loewe Award for Film Composing

Thomas Newman (7)

Thomas Newman's heartwarming score for "Saving Mr. Banks" heightened the movie magic while evoking different eras across three continents. The 11-time Oscar nominee, who scored Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E," reteams with the studio to write music for "The Good Dinosaur."

Ensemble Performance Award

"American Hustle" (8)

Director David O. Russell dipped into his alumni network to build a dream ensemble for "American Hustle."

After wrapping up the "Hangover" series this year, Bradley Cooper will next appear in "Serena" alongside Jennifer Lawrence. He's filming an untitled Cameron Crowe pic and will shoot "American Sniper" next spring.

Following this year's hit "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Lawrence will reprise her roles as Katniss and Mystique in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past," respectively.

Meanwhile, Christian Bale has "Out of the Furnace" and two Terrence Malick projects in the can; he's now filming Ridley Scott's "Exodus."

Amy Adams appeared in "Man of Steel" and "Her" this year, and has Andrew Levitas' "Lullaby" and Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" upcoming.

Jeremy Renner's 2013 credits include "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" and "The Immigrant," with roles in Gary Webb's "Kill the Messenger," "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" and his second turn as Jason Bourne in the pipeline.

--Alex Stedman and Maane Khatchatourian
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Title Annotation:PALM SPRINGS PREVIEW; 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival and Sonny Bono
Author:Saval, Malina
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 17, 2013
Words:1479
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