Sundance Co-Founder Cirina Catania Talks About Film Festivals & More

A Voice from Inside the 3rd Golden Age of Television

This coming October, Duluth will be hosting the Catalyst Content Festival, a gathering of independent media developers, producers, directors and visionaries. Sponsors include St. Louis County, Monaco Air, HBO, and the Abrams Artist Agency, among others. In my effort to learn more I have been interviewing various people and sharing their insights here.

This past weekend I had an opportunity to speak with Cirina Catania, one of the co-founders of the influential Sundance Film Festival. Ms. Catania serves on the advisory board for Catalyst, offering a unique perspective on what Catalyst is striving to accomplish, and why Duluth is an ideal home for bringing the festival to a new level.

The more we talked the more impressed I became in two regards. First, that she had been involved in Hollywood for more than three decades without becoming jaded, with a generous spirit and genuine warmth. Second, because she wore that mantle of cred that comes with experience.

We had a good first “meeting” and this is a portion of what we talked about.

EN: Who is Cirina Catania, besides being a Hollywood insider who has been involved in more than 100 films?

Cirina Catania: I’m a creative person. I have both a left and a right side of the brain that work.

I spent quite a few years in the studio system in Hollywood. MGMUA and then at the new UA (United Artists) where I was managing up to $200 million a year. I had final responsibility for all the budgets for marketing, PR, research. I have this other side of me that is creative and wants to do fun things with my brain. And doesn’t like to be put in a box.

Before I got into elementary school I was playing with drawing, and got a Brownie Instamatic Camera and I loved photography, which became a way for me to express who I am.

I loved how you could put five people together looking at the same thing and the creative rewards of what they are looking at are going to be completely different. Don’t you love that though? It’s sort of what makes the world go ‘round.

I’m also a mom and a grandma and a family person. I was lucky that I had children when I entered the studio system. It kept me grounded. I had to go to the parties, and get into the limos with the actors and actresses, but it didn’t matter to me because at the end of the day I was going home to my kids. That was more important. I had the best of both worlds.

EN: Among your many other activities you’re also affiliated with Catalyst. What attracted you to what is going on here?

CC: I met Philip Gilpin (Catalyst Executive Director) a few years ago when I interviewed him for my radio show and I was very impressed with him. He and I then stayed in communication and when he was doing town hall meetings in Vermont and legislative lobbying there, he asked if I might be interested in speaking with the local community about what it takes to start a festival because of the Sundance connection.

We met with the governor and did a couple town hall meetings. When the festival moved to Duluth I was really excited because I think the Duluth community is a much better fit. The people in Vermont were awesome and I met some beautiful people there, but they didn’t have the ability to expand to the extent the festival is going to expand.

One of the goals of the festival is to put money in our pockets in this community. And I think it’s going to happen. I’m on the Advisory Board, offering advice and being a cheerleader to help make it happen.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do at this stage in my career is mentor younger people and mentor film makers in the Heartland of America who are always asking, “Should I move to L.A.? Can I make a living here? Will I be happy staying here in my home town?”

I always tell them, if you can make it work, and stay close to your family and friends in your home town, why not? This is a beautiful country.

EN: You recently came to Duluth to do a film making workshop.

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Catania & Gilpin flank Patty Mester, President and GM of WDSE/WPRT

CC: We just did this 2-day master class in film making with WDSE-WRPT. It was a way for me to share what I’ve learned from working inside Hollywood.

I used the example of a non-scripted reality show, like the films I have worked on with National Geographic, and what do you have to do at the end of the filming and in post-production to make sure you are delivering what the network needs in order to meet the contracts that have been signed.

We also invited a group to come out from L.A. They really believe in the local film maker so we brought in people from the “We Make Movies Smart Phone Studio,” Aubrey Mozino and Sam Mestman, helping the creative people in that room to play. I wanted to take the equipment out of the equation. It was thrilling how the teams went from quiet in the beginning to fully engaged and excited by the end.

I have learned so much over the years and so lucky with my career that as I mature although still working I’m thinking more about paying back, giving back to the creative community.

EN: So, tell us about how Sundance got started. You were there right at the beginning.

CC: I was associate director of Utah State Film Commission working under Governor Scott Matheson (1977–1985). John Earle was director of the film commission. It was our mandate to try to bring more film making into the state of Utah.

We did location scouting and produced a book of all the crews and resources for acquiring equipment. We were having dinner one night with Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle and I, going over some business things, and we started talking about how the governor had contacted us and asked what else we could do. And the light went on and I said, “Let’s start a film festival.”

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Cirina shoots BMCC Zeiss 70–200–2PC B&W. Photo courtesy Cirina Catania.

But then everybody we subsequently talked to said, “No, there’s already one in Texas. We don’t need another film festival. What do you want to do a film festival for?” This was in 1978. We didn’t listen, and as I told you I don’t listen, and so we did it and it was probably the hardest I’ve worked in my life.

Sterling directed it the first year. The festival went into debt. The board was thinking about disbanding it. They didn’t know if they could continue. Local merchants were owed a little bit of money — not a whole lot. We had no money in the bank, no offices, no furniture. And we wanted to do the festival another year. So Governor Matheson called me and said, “I really want to continue with the festival and if I give you a six month leave of absence, paid, will you take over the festival and direct it?

I said, “Sure.”

So I went around town — very similar to what Philip [Gilpin, Catalyst Director] is doing — and met with all the merchants, told them what we want to do. A lot of them believed in us. Some provided offices, some provided furniture.

I remember climbing down into the basement of Utah Bank and picking out used furniture. The president of the bank said, “You can have anything in this room.”

In our second year, 1979, we actually made a very small profit. And it was pretty much clear sailing from then.

It’s not easy to do a film festival. It is very time consuming and takes a lot of dedication. But let me tell you, I have seen that in Duluth. You go to an event, any event that’s creatively motivated like a theater like the Zeitgeist, and there are lines outside the door. People attend lectures to talk about photography, to talk about art, to talk about whatever it is, they are so involved and so enthusiastic.

It’s not this way everywhere. I think that Duluth is the perfect home for this festival.

When we did this 2-day workshop I could see it. I could see the excitement in peoples’ eyes. The willingness to try something new. Their willingness to work together in teams. And to play. The joy of creating something. And I’m hoping the festival will be like that for people.

Related Links

Catalyst Content Festival

Master Class: Building our Successful Career in Film

TIME Magazine — 2010 History of Sundance

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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