Reeling

An ugly fight over the selection of an artistic director throws the USA Film Festival into disarray

And Duralde, who was handed the post of artistic director, has it only through the last day of festival week; his long-term employment hinges on whether he can cook up a first-rate show in four months flat. Duralde could not be reached for comment.

"It's a probationary period, basically," says Maloney. "If Alonso does great work, we'd be insane not to offer him a long-term job--I'll want him to stay here for the rest of his life. But if he doesn't, I'm gonna mail him back to L.A. in a box."

Alexander's critics see that as part of the problem. They claim Duralde's probationary appointment is a Band-Aid fix for an organization that has been reeling for years--enduring hostile or indifferent local media coverage and minimal national press, and struggling in vain to develop a unique artistic vision.

Sandoloski characterizes the conflict over artistic director as a fight over the philosophy, character, and direction of the festival.

Supporters of the president's decision point out that by the time Duralde was picked, the selection of a new artistic director had already been delayed far too long; the previous occupant of the post, Richard Petersen, departed in early September. It had taken the organization three months to winnow down over 100 applicants to six finalists. To deliberate further, with the festival's silver anniversary a mere 18 weeks away, would be crazy. Duralde, say the president's supporters, was clearly more familiar than Glatzer with the festival's inner workings; he could hit the ground running.

This faction wants to maintain the status quo, to program the event primarily as a city arts festival aimed at entertaining and enlightening local moviegoers--an approach that could suit Duralde perfectly, given his longtime working relationship with Alexander and his solid local footing.

Those opposing Alexander want to shift the USA Film Festival's focus away from pleasing audiences and donors, and turn it into an industry-conscious film marketplace, like the nationally attended Sundance festival in Utah--a direction Susan Glatzer would reportedly have favored.

Realistically, of course, there's no way of knowing yet what Duralde will do with his appointment, or what Glatzer might have done had she been given the job. But both have become symbols nonetheless.

"Is the main goal of the festival to show films that will appeal primarily to people in the city and maybe enlighten them and enrich them?" asks Sandoloski. "Or does the festival want to have juried prizes, some kind of competition, something that would give a filmmaker more reward than just a roomful of people to respond to his movie--something that would make it actually important for a filmmaker to show his film at the USA Film Festival? Right now, the festival is a good city festival, but nationally, it's not important."

It's a debate that has long simmered within the organization, but it has now come to a boil. Mondell was so outraged by Maloney's decision that she hired a lawyer to go over the organization's bylaws to determine whether the president's action was legal. "If I hadn't been asked to be part of a selection committee," says Mondell, "and if somebody had just walked up and put Alonso's name in front of me and said, 'Here's the person we're going with,' I would have said, 'Fine. I'm sure he'll do a good job.' I'm more frustrated with how things happened."

Mondell is especially upset by a meeting of the USA Film Festival's personnel committee, which oversees hirings and firings, that was called by Maloney and Ann Alexander shortly after the vote.

Its members are sitting president Maloney; Tom Stark, his predecessor as president; and incoming president Linda Sanders, who will take over for Maloney in mid-1995. All four people also served on the search committee.

"Ann presented some information during that meeting that caused John to change his mind," Mondell says. "Whatever that information was, it wasn't given to me." Nor, notes Mondell, was it given to fellow search committee members John Eichman, a Dallas attorney, or Sandoloski.

Mondell says that since the holiday party, board members, trustees, and various Alexander backers have pressured her to drop her opposition. "I felt the process had been subverted, I spoke out about it, and now I find that I am the disease of the week," she says.

Mondell cites a Dec. 20 incident at the Quadrangle Grill as evidence of the pressure Alexander is bringing to bear. She and Alexander had agreed to have lunch and discuss the issue.

To Mondell's surprise, trustee Dan Owen joined them. Owen told Mondell "in no uncertain terms that he paid a lot of money to be a trustee" and that she was trying to "undermine" the organization. Owen then warned her either to "find a way to work with this group" or resign from the festival's board of directors, "because if you don't, then people will oppose you and discredit you."

"To me," says Mondell, who secretly taped the lunch meeting with a small cassette player, "that sounds like a bit of a threat."

Owen declined to be quoted for this article.
Sutton says it is Mondell, not Ann Alexander, who has taken the dispute to ugly extremes, including making outrageous allegations about Alexander's motives.

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