Chicago film fest founder: 'I'm not going anywhere'

Michael Kutza has made it 50 years as the head of the Chicago film fest, and he's not going anywhere.

Michael Kutza sliced through the crush with a smile. It's what he has done for decades. Well-wishers, sponsors, staffers, friends, filmmakers, moviegoers, people who say Chicago would be a culturally poorer place without him and people who say he's an incorrigible, tone-deaf socialite who does the city few favors: Everyone stepped aside, and Kutza strode through the lobby, down a hallway and into a theater at AMC River East 21, the unassuming, proletarian showcase for the Chicago International Film Festival, which Kutza founded. His smile is his weapon, the first thing you notice about him. It's mischievous and reddens his face, his grin expanding across his cheeks with Hollywood wattage.

The man cuts a swath.

He moved through the crowd and grabbed eagerly at a microphone as he stepped before the packed theater. This was last October, on the closing night of the festival. Kutza thanked "the people who make it work," gasped about how excited he was "looking at all of you." And then, awkwardly, he noted, "Next year is our 50th." He said it hastily, making no mention he had been at the helm of the festival for the entire 50.

As if he didn't want to promise much.

The Chicago International Film Festival concludes its 50th year on Thursday with the Oscar-buzzy Reese Witherspoon drama "Wild," and though this may sound like a milestone, there's no reason to expect the evening to be any different from that 49th edition. Which is to say, prosaic, almost sleepy, casting more of a multiplex vibe than the gravitas and glamour associated with other venerable big-city film festivals. Last year's closing-night selection was the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," but its relatively unknown star, Oscar Isaac, came dressed in a T-shirt. Flashbulbs did not explode. And though the festival prides itself on being "audience-driven," half of the seats inside the theater were held for friends of the festival, board members and sponsors.

The movie was terrific.

The festival … eh.

It has its defenders. Michelle Boone, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said: "I completely disagree with (the naysayers). The city wants it to be successful, but I don't think bigger is better, as long as Michael stays focused on a well-curated festival. For me, personally, it was an introduction to the idea of film as an event. I knew it before I knew any other film festival, so that image of movie star entrances, screaming crowds — it feels fabricated. It doesn't reflect the spirit of Chicago, anyway."

But the whines from moviegoers and critics, the litany of disappointments that go back ages (and at times sound unfair), are incessant: Despite hanging on for decades, the festival has never made itself a vital must-visit, nationally or locally. Despite being founded as a vehicle for bringing foreign and independent film to Chicago, many selections now are marginal, even by cinephile standards, or merely predictable, having played a score of prestigious festivals before reaching Chicago. The festival gets lost in the autumn arts gridlock, vying for attention alongside new theater seasons, the Chicago Humanities Festival, etc. Its splash of big-name faces is more like a drip, and there's nothing special about a festival in a multiplex.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the festival — the primary responsibility of the nonprofit group Cinema/Chicago — has had a reputation for years of making enemies, being disorganized, alienating staff and city officials (and therefore being perpetually underfunded). Jonathan Hertzberg, a programmer at the festival a decade ago, is now director of theatrical distribution for art-house distributor Kino Lorber. He said: "My experience was positive, but it's not a festival any distributor feels it has to be in. That lack of traction, it was frustrating when I worked there."

By far, though, the oldest whines are about Kutza.

Which makes some sense: Kutza has often said the festival is himself and he is the festival. Andrew Davis, Chicago-bred director of "The Fugitive," said: "For as long as I can remember, it has been the Michael Kutza Festival. But I get it: Maybe you need to be controlling and arrogant to keep a festival going 50 years, right?"

Kutza inspires complicated feelings.

At 22, in 1964, when his nascent festival climbed to its feet (then debuted a year later at the Carnegie Theater), he was baby-faced and ambitious. At 72, a comfort has settled into his expression, an air of unimpeachable institutional ease. Admirers and critics, many of whom are one and the same, agree: Kutza is charming — a schmoozer and a formidable one. Friends and staff and former employees describe a man who made his festival his lifestyle, living partly on business expenses, committing much of his year to the event, sinking his inheritance into its finances, not even taking an annual salary until 1993.

Ed Rabin, a former board member (and president of Hyatt Hotels, now retired), said, "Michael sacrificed a great deal of life for this thing." Brian Andreotti, marketing director of Chicago-based distributor Music Box Films, said, "Nothing as rocky as that festival can survive 50 years without someone as devoted as Michael." But John Iltis, a longtime Chicago publicist who worked with the festival, is less generous: "Michael infuriates the hell out of people. I wish I could say great things, but for years (the festival) was infamous for promising films it didn't have. Just embarrassing stuff. Michael doesn't pick good films. He favors friends. But he's a survivor, and they'll never get rid of him."

A more typical reaction to Kutza came from Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg ("Drinking Buddies"). He volunteered for the festival a decade ago. Asked what he thought of Kutza, he said: "I have conflicting views. His entrepreneurial spirit when he was younger is an example of what is so great about Chicago. He brought amazing people to town when nobody else was. And the fact he is still running the festival is what is wrong about Chicago: He needed to hand over the reins a long time ago. It's founder's syndrome, and there's a lot of it (in Chicago). People create amazing institutions, then can't let them go, so those things never change.

"That said, the other thing wrong about Chicago is we need to tear down success, and I would be lying if I didn't say I have a lot of respect for Michael and that festival; it introduced me to film."

Still, 50 years is a long run.

Last year on closing night, when Kutza noted the coming anniversary, a retirement announcement wouldn't have been surprising. The timing was perfect; Mimi Plauche, the festival's program director since 2006, is well-liked. Instead, the film ended, the applause died, the audience filed out and the festival spun on, as always.

"Michael, this is not working."

Victor Skrebneski pulled his hand from his camera.

"Michael," he said, looking around his Gold Coast studio for Kutza, "Michael, I have never seen more fake smiles in my life." Kutza, standing behind him, nodded grimly. The two child models being photographed, a 5-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, were distracted, staring toward their parents. It was August, and Skrebneski, the celebrated photographer whose provocative photos of models for the festival's posters are tied to its identity, was shooting the 50th poster.

They had been at it for an hour.

As a nod to the anniversary, Skrebneski, 84, suggested using the first poster, which he had also shot. But Kutza said no. In fact, in the year since the 49th festival, Kutza had grown adamant that the 50th not become a big deal, said Vivian Teng, the festival's managing director: "He doesn't want to be an exercise in nostalgia." Instead, Skrebneski said, Kutza suggested using babies for the poster.

"'Babies, I want babies, Victor!' Michael said. That's how Michael talks: 'Victor — babies!' So I clipped him pictures of babies, and he said, 'Victor, come on, you making fun of me now?' And I said, 'No, Michael, these are what babies look like.'"

They settled on slightly older babies.

Who, at the moment, were fretting. Skrebneski was trying to line them up so that the filmstrip on their matching T-shirts looked continuous.

"You'll never get unity, you will never get them doing the same thing," Kutza mumbled.

He left the room.

Skrebneski whispered to me: "Michael is calm today. He's usually all 'ARRGGGH!' when we do this."

Very little of the festival changes too much. Attendance has been around 60,000 a year for the past decade; the budget is in the $2 million area; government arts grants to the festival are still minuscule (just over $30,000, combined). Spoken-word artist Ken Nordine, at 94, is still making the festival trailer. And Skrebneski still shoots its posters — at no charge to the festival. Plus, he still makes fundraising calls ("It's been terrible," he said).

Kutza drifted back.

The kids were smiling now.

"Bigger!" Skrebneski was yelling. "OK! Too much! Enough!" The picture was transferred to a computer, and assistants blocked out a promising image, framing it up in a poster shape. Kutza stepped up to the monitor.

"That's sort of nice," he said.

Skrebneski pointed to a rail of blank space: "And here you run '50th annual film festival,' or whatever."

Kutza frowned.

"No," he said. "No '50th.'"

"But why Michael?" Skrebneski said, bewildered. But Kutza was already in the next room.

"That's the way he is," the photographer sighed. "Knows what he wants, thinks it will all turn out fine, and it probably will."

The license plate of Kutza's 2011 Mercedes says "FILM." He has no children, no spouse. By all accounts, including his own, he lives a simple life. The first time we talked at length, he had just returned to Chicago after a typical eight months of travel: a trip to a film academy in Beijing and trips to festivals in Guadalajara, Mexico; Berlin, Cannes and Romania, where he was on a film jury at the Transilvania International Film Festival. It's what festival heads do; they attend festivals, look for films, network. After 50 years of this, Kutza's office, in the festival's Adams Street headquarters, is awash in framed certificates and plaques.

He walked me through: "I was invited to a Korean festival 40 years, and they gave me a replica of the emperor's headdress."

"An award from the Venice Film Festival."

"That's from Berlin."

And the large framed photo of Jimmy Stewart?

"I like him. He was honest and naive. Like me."

Kutza is blunt to a fault: Asked about his Mercedes, he told me the automaker was a sponsor and "made it more affordable." Asked about the honorary Chicago street sign in his name (at Michigan Avenue and Congress), he said he asked the city to raise it higher after he saw teenagers hanging from it. Once, agitated with my questions, he blurted: "Aren't they killing people like you (reporters) in the Middle East?"

Sophia Wong Boccio, the festival's managing director from 2001 to 2007 (now managing director of the Redmoon Theater), told me: "Michael is not a bad person. He speaks without thinking. He says the most inappropriate things at the most inappropriate times, and it's hurt him." His stabs at self-deprecation sound very close to arrogance.

But sometimes it's just self-deprecation.

On a wall of his office is a photo by Skrebneski, taken for a lifestyle magazine in 1970; it shows 16 cultural leaders of Chicago, including Hugh Hefner, Ebony founder John H. Johnson, theater producer Michael Butler and Kutza. Standing slightly apart, he's the youngest of the group and, as Kutza said, out of his league at the time. I was reminded of this later when he said that, growing up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, he had no friends: "I was too focused on movies." Film festivals became his introduction to friends.

Here's how his festival happened: He made an experimental short that won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in the early '60s. As it played festivals around the world, Kutza traveled with it, meeting people. Back in Chicago, working as an editor for WGN-TV, his festival triumph made Irv Kupcinet's Chicago Sun-Times column. Kup introduced him to silent film star Colleen Moore, then mourning her husband, Homer Hargrave, who ran Merrill Lynch's Chicago office. Kutza, in his 20s, and Moore, in her 60s, became friends. Kutza, inspired by his trips, wanted a film showcase in Chicago, and Moore helped him assemble a board of directors, "composed of the ladies who could make things happen in Chicago, wives of the people in power."

"I was just a kid, and they didn't care at all about movies," Kutza continued. "They wanted to throw elaborate parties. I went to Mayor (Richard J.) Daley for help and he said, 'Give the kid what he wants, but don't put my name on (the festival).' He gave us no money but helped us with hotels and told us we would use McCormick Place, which never worked out." Instead, with money from his father, Kutza rented the Carnegie Theater and showed 10 forgettable movies.

"Nobody came," he said, "but what happened was Colleen invited remarkable people to closing night" — Bette Davis, filmmakers King Vidor and Stanley Kramer — "and that was very successful."

The cliffhangers — near collapse of the festival, followed by a last-minute revival — continued for decades.

For several years, Kutza ran the festival out of his Old Town apartment, somewhat on the assumption that he would eventually stop.

"My parents were doctors," he said. "My mother was an OB and Italian, my father was a surgeon and Polish. To them, this film thing was a passing fancy. My father said: 'You're going to become a doctor, aren't you?' So I started pre-med at Loyola but got a degree in psychology and biology at Roosevelt, then studied graphic design at Illinois Institute of Technology (he created the festival's eyes-and-reel logo).

"By the time my father died, that fancy was 10. See, my parents were incredibly dedicated doctors. We never talked about the festival; they never attended it. But they had taught me to be dedicated. And at the end of my father's life I went to his office: His walls were covered in newspaper clippings about the festival."

By the late 1970s, the festival was attracting about 80,000 moviegoers annually. Kutza was building an international reputation; in 1987 he sat on the Camera d'Or jury at Cannes. Noah Cowan, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (and one of the architects of the Toronto International Film Festival), said: "Michael was a part of the incredibly key first wave of champions of global cinema, a conduit for how non-Hollywood (film) entered the public consciousness. You really can't overstate his importance."

The festival also gained a reputation as a launching pad for young filmmakers as varied as Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and John Carpenter. Said filmmaker Taylor Hackford, whose first film, "The Idolmaker," was chosen by Kutza as the opening-night selection in 1979: "Michael had this debonair, upper-crust thing, and was not about to apologize for his taste. I remember meeting him at the Chicago Theatre and saying, 'Are you sure you got the right filmmaker?' He had so much youthful energy; I can't express how important his vote of confidence was."

Still, there was a paradox.

Problems abounded. The festival and Kutza's international reputation were relatively muted in the Midwest, which Plauche said still holds. Judy Gaynor, who became the festival's administrative director in the late '70s, said sponsorship was always tenuous and the festival was, financially speaking, "hanging on by its fingertips for years." Kutza now says the festival did not do proper fundraising for a while, and as time went on he thought he "could do everything better" himself. By the late '80s, he had grown overly relaxed and self-confident, he admits. As the global film festival circuit expanded exponentially, and the Toronto and Sundance festivals became prime examples of how to stage a festival, the cracks in the Chicago festival looked more apparent.

While we talked about this, Kutza, who armored himself long ago against complaints that his festival is not as good as bigger, better-funded festivals, shouted to Teng: "Vivian, why the hell can't we be more like Toronto?"

"You want the top 10 reasons?" she asked.

In the early '90s, the festival was criticized for showing too many movies, for being spread across too many theaters, for not gaining in stature. In 1995, businessman Ellis Goodman, Kutza's board chairman, who had guaranteed $300,000 in loans to cover the festival's rising debt, decided the top problem was Kutza. After the departure of programmer Marc Evans, who grew frustrated with Kutza over his choices of films (he is now president of production at Paramount Pictures), Goodman set in motion a board vote designed to boot the founder.

Robert Scarpelli, a board member for several decades (and now executive vice chairman), said: "It was grim. Michael got to see who supported him and who didn't." In the end, a majority voted for him, but his staff and a dozen board members quit, including Goodman (who did not return phone calls for this story).

It was the closest Kutza has come to leaving the festival. Looking back, he said, he created the situation, that it was a teachable moment: "My entire staff had been against me, and I had no idea!" When I asked if he had learned anything from that near-coup, he laughed: "Oh yeah! I learned never to trust my (expletive) staff!"

"Believe it or not, we're trying to do a staff reunion," Kutza said to me in mid-August, taking a seat in the festival's offices. "We're trying to find the 422 people who worked here over the years. It's a bad idea, I think. Just a terrible idea."

"It'll be great," an assistant said.

"It'll be terrible," Kutza mumbled.

He sat in the middle of the office surrounded by assistants and interns, some working databases to find former staff, some lining up festival guests. Ryan Saunders, a DePaul University film student and assistant, was helping Kutza select 24 images from the festival's archives. The Chicago Cultural Center's Expo 72 gallery was putting on a show of photos from the festival.

"God, I love this," Kutza said, reaching for a black-and-white of Jack Nicholson autographing a program. Saunders had pulled out several photos Kutza might love: Lillian Gish at the Granada Theater, Sophia Loren at the Pump Room, the Indian director Satyajit Ray.

"Ray won't make it," Kutza said. "Would anybody care?"

"I think so," Saunders said.

"But look how many sizes of Roger (Ebert) there are."

"Here's a good Robert Altman."

"Yes, but we get 24 choices. Colleen Moore helped start this (expletive) festival. Two should be of her."

"Here's you."

"I don't want to be in any," Kutza said, putting his hands on his knees to stand. "You have failed me."

Saunders hung his head and smiled.

Kutza laughed. His staff, which totals six year-round (and more than 70 part-timers in the fall), seems more amused by him than intimidated. At a programming meeting I attended, Plauche — who doesn't draw sharp distinctions between her and Kutza's tastes but said she favors character and he leans toward spectacle — mildly pushed back at his idea for a sprawling, multifilm tribute to an actress. Kutza listened to the ideas from his staff and then left the rest of the meeting, and the film selection, to his programmers.

When the festival was at war with itself and Kutza's future with the organization appeared questionable, meetings were not this benign. Sponsors had been scared off and relationships with film distributors and studios had become strained or nonexistent. By 1995, the festival was roughly $500,000 in the red.

It took a decade to right the ship.

Kutza was supported by his new board, as long as he delegated more responsibilities, and by the mid-2000s the festival was entering the black. Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions gave a $50,000 grant infusion, and even after leaving, Goodman contributed $250,000 to reduce the festival's debt. Tony Karman, a consultant to the festival (now president of the EXPO Chicago art fair), began lining up new sponsors and, as he explained, "made a big decision to collapse the size of the festival, doing it in one location, not across many theaters."

Boccio, who is often credited with steering the festival to financial coherence, said: "I want to give Michael credit here. He was ready to listen to others. Perhaps because, by then, he had no alternative."

These days, Teng said, the festival is relatively healthy and debt-free, though sponsorship is always elusive. Programming-wise, Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office, said, "Mimi has done a nice job minimizing the idea that the festival is about Michael's taste." He added that the city has had discussions with Kutza for the past few years about establishing an industry marketplace at the festival. But Kutza told me he met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and "said we're not that kind of festival, we're not a marketplace."

So money remains a issue.

As it does for many festivals: Cowan, whose San Francisco Film Society oversees the San Francisco Film Festival, said that because film is a popular art form, and there's only so much arts funding to go around, "there's this sense that (a film festival) should have enough broad appeal to find support outside" the usual sponsorships and grants.

So, in Chicago, in 2011, federal, state and city grants to the Chicago International Film Festival amounted to $43,786; in 2012, $33,250. Meanwhile, in 2013 the Lyric Opera of Chicago received $60,000 from the Illinois Arts Council alone (the festival got $11,050). And as for city contributions (a frequent gripe of festival board members), it's less than $10,000 annually. (Last year the Milwaukee Film Festival received $18,000 in grants from the city of Milwaukee.)

Teng doesn't complain about city funding, though. She said the city gives Cinema/Chicago support in other ways — the use of Millennium Park for Cinema/Chicago screenings, for instance. Asked about funding, Commissioner Boone said to "look beyond cash." She cited the mayor's opening-night appearances as an example of support. The mayor, however, didn't attend the 50th festival's opening gala.

He sent a video.

What else does the festival need, other than money? Teng said a new home, a dedicated public space.

The festival came close once.

In the early 2000s, the festival had a promising shot at a spot inside the Heritage condominium building at Millennium Park, said architect Daniel Coffey, who served as festival board chairman for a decade.

"Perception-wise, it matters," Coffey said. "A space like that for an arts group suggests staying power, institution. A building alone isn't enough to make an arts institution, but it speaks volumes to the rest of the cultural community."

The plan, Coffey said, was for the festival to raise half the money, with the rest coming from city assistance. "And we were completely shut down."

Kutza, he suspected, had irritated too many city officials over the years, "so support would be nominal and not real." (Kutza, for his part, agreed: He said that after 50 years, it would be hard not to irritate City Hall.) Coffey left the festival board about six years ago, frustrated.

"I realized that with Michael, (the festival) can never grow or flourish," Coffey said. "Is the festival where it should be after 50 years? At the end of the day, Michael Kutza is comfortable with the festival that he has, and it's not a bad festival, not at all. You could even say it's kind of noble to be perfectly OK. I like Michael's festival. But what could have been? It doesn't have the legacy it should. So can it continue after Michael? That's the question."

For the record, Kutza is not retiring from the Chicago International Film Festival. He said if people resent him, it's because they resent their own jobs.

"I'm not going anywhere," he told me often. When the festival had its reunion in late August, he found himself telling former staffers that often. But he said the reunion was fun. About 100 showed up.

"I was like a nightclub act, walking around with a microphone, asking people who they were. This woman came up and said, 'Do you remember me?' I said, 'I thought you were dead.' And she said, 'I loved the festival, I loved what I was doing, and you fired me.' I said, 'Oh. Right. Well, there you are.'"

The woman, like everyone who attended, received a T-shirt as a party favor.

On the front, the festival logo.

On the back, "I Survived."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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