In 1977, a 22-year-old Case graduate and film enthusiast named Jonathan Forman put together the first Cleveland Film Festival (which has now evolved into the Cleveland International Film Festival). A native New Yorker, Mr. Forman had originally intended to bring the New York Film Festival to Cleveland, but when that didn't work out, he simply decided to do his own film festival. I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Forman, now President of Cleveland Cinemas, a few questions about that first film festival.
Cleveland Area History: Is there one particular memory that stands out when you think about that first festival?
Jonathan Forman: 34 years is a long time ago and my memory about specifics is fuzzy. But I do remember vividly my concern that the Festival receipts would be enough to cover all operating expenses. There was no funding. No corporate support. No sponsors. Everyone who helped me were friends and no one, including me, was paid. We had to have enough money to pay to rent the Cedar Lee Theatre (owned by Community Properties, not me), printing costs, mailing costs (snail mail, there was no email or internet marketing), film shipping and film rental were among the many expenses. We did break even, which was incredible.
CAH: Which films did you show at the first film festival? How did you choose them?
JF: We showed 8 films over the course of 8 weeks. Each film was shown twice, on a Wednesday and Thursday night at 8pm. It was more of a subscription series (patterned after a similar effort that American Express had done previously) as I was concerned that a traditional festival format of several days of film showings might not work in Cleveland. We opened with F FOR FAKE and concluded with a wonderful Italian comedy, MY FRIENDS. In between we showed XALA, from Senegal, The 11th INTERNATIONAL TOURNEE OF ANIMATION and others. It was an eclectic mix of films and people came and seemed to enjoy the mix.
CAH: What was opening night like? (i.e., Good attendance? Bad weather? Did you serve anything unique at the concession stand?)
JF: Opening Night was great. The lobby of the Cedar Lee was packed with many local celebrities (all invited guests) and paying customers. Whatever food and wine that was served was donated. We had our own "specialty" concession stand where we introduced Russian Tea Biscuits and assorted cookies from Lax and Mandel, a local bakery, that have become a staple at the annual CIFF and at the Cedar Lee.
CAH: In your opinion, how is the Cleveland of today different from the Cleveland of 1977?
JF: The Festival today can't even be compared with what started it all. It is in fact what I fantasized about and thought it would be very cool if Cleveland could have a Festival with large crowds, lots of movies and enthusiastic and passionate movie goers--and just plain folks who like movies. Cleveland wasn't ready for that in 1977. But after laying the ground work, David Wittkowsky and now Marcie Goodman and their staffs, have turned it into something great that rivals the major Festivals in this country and around the world.