On the cusp of its 25th year, the Hamptons International Film Festival is at a crossroads. As it continues to grow in its programs and its stature, its leadership must decide where and how it will venture into the future.
With Alec Baldwin and Randy Mastro now at the helm, it is a good time to take stock and see where the festival is headed. The two men, longtime board members, took over as co-chairmen last year following Stuart Match Suna’s retirement after 18 years as chairman. One of the festival’s founding board members, Mr. Suna remains chairman emeritus.
Both men said last month during separate interviews that they are satisfied with the festival’s size and reputation for generating early Oscar buzz. “We’ve shown the [Academy Awards] best picture seven out of eight years and six years in a row, and the best documentary four out of seven years,” Mr. Mastro said. “The best films and filmmakers in the industry are coming to our festival.”
Still there are ways the festival can strengthen and even expand, if the right balance can be achieved. Mr. Baldwin confirmed that there have been discussions of incremental growth, including ways to reach New York City patrons throughout the year and to offer more educational programs for aspiring filmmakers, screenwriters, and actors. Over the years, there has also been talk of broadening the festival to two weekends, with a more recent focus on offering a full program in Southampton and points west for the second weekend.
Mr. Mastro’s day job (for which he may be nearly as well known as Mr. Baldwin is for acting) is litigator for such high-profile clients as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Chevron. In his earlier career he worked closely with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, both as a prosecutor and as chief of staff and deputy mayor. In City Hall, he was credited for helping push organized crime out of New York City’s businesses and markets. He remains close to Mr. Giuliani and plays golf with him regularly in Southampton.
As an undergraduate at Yale, Mr. Mastro fell in love with the film classes he took as electives. He joined the festival board to help with legal services a decade ago at the behest of Mr. Suna. “I wanted to become a lawyer after seeing Gregory Peck in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as a kid.”
He was reticent to discuss future plans in detail, but did acknowledge that an expansion to the western reaches of Southampton Town was a personal goal. “There is so much we can do to the west in terms of audience expansion and growth. I will be focused on this like a laser beam throughout my tenure.”
“We do have an ambitious agenda for the future,” he said. “It’s not something we will do in one year or a few years, but for the long haul.” Over time, he expects the festival to become more and more of a destination spot for artists, producers, and distributors on the circuit.
Asked to reflect on the festival’s reputation as a country cousin to some of the more prominent operations, such as the often-concurrent New York Film Festival with which it is often in competition for guests, films, and audiences, Mr. Baldwin acknowledged the “quaint nature of the festival. The question becomes do you want to be more than that? What are the smart improvements? Where do we need to get better?”
Many years ago at the Sundance Film Festival he said he overheard Robert Redford speaking to Geoff Gilmore (who was Sundance’s director for 19 years before joining the Tribeca Film Festival). “This movie was playing and the audience was howling and screaming. I don’t remember what movie it was, but Redford turned to Gilmore and said ‘This isn’t what I had in mind at all.’ ”
He added that Mr. Redford has said for the record that he was concerned about Sundance’s balance of art and commerce. Of the large festivals, Mr. Baldwin noted that Cannes is almost all market-driven “with a gold-leaf veneer of festival on top. Sundance has its share, but Toronto [International Film Festival] has a great mix of both. They are envied for that balance.”
The Hamptons festival is at the opposite end of the spectrum. “This is a pure festival. It’s about appreciation for cinephiles.” Sightings of Harvey Weinstein probably have more to do with his having a house here than an interest in picking up a film for distribution.
“I think everyone here knows what the festival is and wants it to remain that, because once you grow and grow, you have to feed that beast. Sundance is an enormous operation.”
“The not-for-profit world is like a walk through the woods. You are three or four bad turns away from being lost, and then you’re going to die in those woods,” Mr. Baldwin said. Without a proper sense of direction, “you can be out of business so quickly.”
Even the targeted expansion they are speaking of will cost money, a fact that neither chairman is taking for granted. Mr. Mastro said it is crucial in their role “to ensure the administrative and financial stability of the enterprise.”
When Anne Chaisson took over as executive director, Mr. Baldwin said, she opened up the books to the board and worked to stabilize any potential weaknesses. The next step is to begin an endowment and find sponsors and benefactors who can be relied upon every year. “We are still a festival that goes year to year asking patrons or corporate people to give us money.” It would be better to have gifts that are sustained.
Both men have taken on their new roles while retaining their previous responsibilities on the board. Mr. Mastro still addresses any legal issues that arise, and Mr. Baldwin still moderates and helps select films for the SummerDocs series with David Nugent, the festival’s artistic director. Depending on his schedule, Mr. Baldwin also moderates talks during the festival and extends invitations to actors such as Edward Norton, who is being honored this year, to participate in the “Conversations With” series.
Despite their very different lives, each appreciates the other. Mr. Baldwin premiered his imitation of Donald Trump on last week’s “Saturday Night Live,” while Mr. Mastro’s friend, Mr. Giuliani, is a prominent spokesman for the Trump campaign.
Mr. Baldwin recalled walking into a festival board meeting right after interviewing Steve Donziger, an environmental activist and one of Mr. Mastro’s longest and most bitter courtroom opponents, for his podcast. After he mentioned it to Mr. Mastro, Mr. Baldwin said “Randy almost spit his drink. All he could say was, ‘Really?’ ”
“This may sound facetious but it’s true: The more dastardly the person is who hires Randy, the more you see how good he is at what he does,” Mr. Baldwin said. “But when you meet Randy he is like a teddy bear. He is the sweetest, kindest, most thoughtful person. He’s a pleasure to work with.”
Mr. Mastro returned the compliment. “I have a blast working with Alec and his energy and enthusiasm. He is generous in every way.” During their first year, he said, they have agreed on every issue that has come up. “It’s like the last line in ‘Casablanca,’ ‘This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ ”
In addition to praising each other, both men were effusive in their praise for Ms. Chaisson and Mr. Nugent. “Nugent picks some great movies,” Mr. Baldwin said. “One year I saw nine films in three days. That was before I had kids.” He said he also loves working on SummerDocs with him. With family commitments and another baby at home, he said he had not done as much as he wanted to this year, but hopes to return to a more active role next year.
He may not have a choice. The 25th anniversary next year will “really surprise people with some of the programming we will have. We are pulling out all of the stops,” Mr. Baldwin said.