Inkles masterminds famed film festival

By Megan Murphy, Celia Bever, and Phil Brady
The Greene Team

Come winter, Alan Inkles is like a black bear that retreats to its cave.

For this director of Stony Brook University’s famed summer film festival, Inkles’ cave is his suburban basement. Here he sifts through 700 films, four hours a night, for seven months.

Inkles’ dogged effort has made this festival a cultural icon, drawing audiences from across Long Island and beyond. While Inkles’ decisions can make or break young filmmakers, they’re really about the audience. He chooses films largely for their appeal to moviegoers.

Inkles

Alan Inkles watches 700 movies per year before selecting around 20 for the festival. Photo by Alana Mutum.

Eager filmmakers begin to send him films immediately after the prior years’ festival, but Inkles does not begin to watch the films until November. Through the winter, he views the films, which often number up to 700.

For about four hours each night, Inkles plucks the exceptional films from the average in his pile. “My wife banishes me [to the basement],” Inkles said, “she doesn’t want to hear this at 11 p.m.” As he watches each film, he visualizes how it would appear on the 40-foot screen of the Staller Center. “The theme is good films,” Inkles said, when asked how he picks them. According to Inkles, a good film consists of good acting, a good story, and good production value. “I have a pretty good idea of what good acting is: It’s what I couldn’t do, ” joked the former aspiring actor. Inspired by the Sundance film festival, he tends to show independent, “avant-garde” films.

Sometimes the quality of the films is sub-par. Said Inkles: “A lot of these films that come in are copies made from filmmakers who have just finished their film; the sound may be all over the place. When you rent a DVD, how many times are you sitting there lowering the volume and raising the sound? Well, multiply that by ten. That’s what these DVDs are.” Occasionally, the DVDs that he receives won’t play on his DVD player, forcing him to own multiple DVD players.

In late spring, Inkles enlists his staff to help him winnow 50 finalists down to the films that will actually be shown at the festival. “I can count on my staff,” he said. Ultimately, the winners are chosen for their emotional appeal and universal message.

Choosing the right films is only half the preparation. Equally important is ordering the roster of films, said Inkles. One year, for example, a festival attendee complained about watching three “depressing” movies on three consecutive nights.

Explained Inkles, “We try and create an atmosphere so that they walk out and say, ‘That was a really great mix: having this film early and that film late.’ We want them to think it’s by accident. We want them to think that it’s just interesting that it worked that way. And yet, there’s been hours put into trying to figure out what would be the best way to make the night work.”

Still, despite all his hard work, Inkles can’t make everyone happy. One night of this summer a moviegoer complained to Inkles about a horror film he had just seen. “It’s not whether it’s your cup of tea or not,” Inkles said. He told the complainer: “You know what, you might think of going to the multiplex next time.”