It was supposed to be a night of good cheer and celebration. Some 50 people associated with the USA Film Festival--board members, staffers, trustees, and assorted supporters and hangers-on--had gathered December 15 at the Highland Park home of trustee Dan Owen for a combination holiday party and board meeting.

The organization's president, Dallas advertising and marketing entrepreneur John Maloney, called the room to attention for an important announcement. After four long months without an artistic director, a replacement had been selected: Alonso Duralde.

A 27-year-old former employee and friend of the festival, Duralde had also worked as an entertainment journalist, writing about pop music, film, and video for the Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Observer, and Dallas Voice. For the last two years, he had been living in West Hollywood, writing free-lance entertainment articles for the Los Angeles Times syndicate and Movieline magazine, and flying back regularly to Dallas to help his friends at the USA Film Festival with programming, particularly with its annual KidFilm event.

Maloney told the crowd that Duralde would arrive in Dallas after the holidays to begin planning the festival, which was set for April 22-28. There was scattered applause.

Then, to the surprise of many in the room, local independent filmmaker Cynthia Mondell, a festival board member who served on the seven-member committee created to find a new artistic director, rose to speak.

Her voice shaking with anger, Mondell told the room that Maloney had just done something "unconscionable." She said that while Duralde was qualified for the position, he wasn't the search committee's choice. Its choice, as of Dec. 12, had been Susan Glatzer, a 27-year-old from the New York area, and a veteran of various nonprofit groups, film booking companies, and university teaching posts.

But within 24 hours of the committee's decision, the USA Film Festival's president, Maloney, who was also a member of the search committee and had enthusiastically voted for Glatzer, had met with three other search committee members, including the organization's outspoken and controversial administrative director, Ann Alexander.

After that meeting, Mondell told the crowd, the president had suddenly decided to ignore the search committee and install Duralde.

Dallas film producer Richard Kidd, a board member who was present at the party, was bewildered. "The president stands up and says that one person has been selected as artistic director," Kidd says. "Then somebody on the search committee says that person wasn't their choice, and that the results of their search were disregarded. The big question is, why? How could something like this happen? What does it mean?"

What it means is that the USA Film Festival is embroiled in one of the ugliest internal struggles in the organization's rocky 25-year history. It's a struggle complete with office skullduggery rarely seen outside of bad movies: heated public confrontations, taped conversations, and threats of lawyers.

The outcome of this conflict could determine the future of the festival, one of Dallas' largest, oldest, and most visible arts organizations. The opposing factions are battling to win the organization's mushy middle--consisting of a 60-member board of directors and some 3,000 members. The risk is that the clash will divide the organization and drive off contributors, no matter who wins.

It could also affect the careers of several local artists. One is Irving Film Commission chair Ellen Sandoloski, a search committee member who also supported Glatzer and has spoken out against the president's decision to install Duralde.

Another is Mondell, a respected independent moviemaker and pillar of the local film and video community; she has been accused of having selfish reasons for supporting Glatzer--namely, that fighting to install an artistic director with strong personal ties to the independent film industry could benefit her financially.

USA Film Festival publicist Cynthia Sutton also says Mondell is widely resented for raising a stink because she has failed consistently to raise the $2,000 a year in donations required of each board member.

At the center of the controversy is the festival's administrative director, Ann Alexander, who is frequently credited with rescuing the organization from six-figure debt and dramatically building up its membership since her ascension to the post in 1986. But the hard-driving administrator is also resented by members who say she is maneuvering for control of the festival, including its programming side. Alexander's critics suggest that she engineered Duralde's selection because she feared an outsider like Glatzer with close ties to the independent film industry could pose a threat to her authority.

Alexander declined to speak to the Observer about the charges she is trying to grab creative control. Her supporters also refused to respond to the charges. Instead they focus on Alexander's contributions to the festival, including saving it from extinction over the last decade.

"John [Maloney] obviously really struggled over what was the right thing to do in this situation," says Sandoloski. "But a lot of people pressured to him to go with Alonso, for no real reason I've been able to fathom outside of the fact that it's what Ann wanted."

And, of course, there are the fates of Alonso Duralde and Susan Glatzer to consider.

Glatzer, in the eyes of her Dallas supporters, was cheated of a fantastic opportunity to lead the festival in new directions. She refused to discuss the controversy besides saying she was disappointed.

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.

Maloney and the other three committee members present at the private December 13 meeting also chose to relay their views through the USA Film Festival's publicist.

Speaking through Sutton, the group admits to neither wrongdoing nor error, with one exception: it concedes that the search committee's role wasn't properly explained to it in advance, which might have led members to believe that they were actually picking a director, rather than merely recommending one.

Maloney vigorously denies rumors that his change of heart was the result of pressure from Alexander. Yet it seems clear from the festival's publicist that Alexander held sway in the decision. "Everybody on that search committee had an equal voice," Sutton told the Observer, "but when it comes down to it, you've got to ask: who's really better qualified to make a decision like this than Ann, who's been running things day in and day out for eight years now?

"The situation has turned into this hellfire, and I don't think it's justified. Would these people [who favored Glatzer] rather have an administrative director who doesn't care what happens, or somebody who's willing to go out and fight for something she believes in?"

"The organization is strong, and I'm sure we'll carry on," says John Eichman, who voted for Glatzer on the first round, yet now says he supports the president's choice for pragmatic reasons. "But the fact remains that what could have been a great opportunity for the festival has fallen into a big morass of internal confusion and strife. What this organization managed to do is take a win-win situation, in which we were faced with a choice between two very qualified people who each could have contributed something substantive to the USA Film Festival, and we somehow turned it into a losing situation.

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Matt Zoller Seitz