In a typical Maui movie year, film buffs get a full course buffet of film choices for the first and second quarter of the year. Our local theaters and Barry Rivers’ beloved Maui Film Festival provide a wide range of films, including locally made indies, a few under-the-radar studio gems, and the onslaught of big studio offerings. Then, as the end of the year arrives, news of the all the big Oscar-contenders pile up on a weekly basis. Suddenly, movies that you’ve never heard of are among the most anticipated, awards-courting, and acclaimed films of the year… and Maui won’t get most of them until January at the earliest. However, the big exception to that rule is Rivers’ FirstLight Awards Screenings festival, which turns 20 this year, and, once again, allows local audiences to see the big movies everyone is talking about. In fact, some of these films appear on Maui first, even before mainland press and mainstream audiences get their first crack at it!
In recent years, Rivers’ FirstLight allowed local audiences to see Martin Scorsese’s newest works, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), before most mainland critics (I can personally vouch for this, as my time as a Denver Film Critics Society member included discovering with pride that FirstLight was showing the Leonardo Di Caprio-starring debauchery-fest before any of my mainland-based movie critic colleagues got to see it). Rivers gives local audiences a chance to see surprise gems, like the Anne Hathaway-starring Song One and last year’s Jessica Chastain-led Molly’s Game, before anyone else. As he often reminds audiences personally before each screening, “The only place to see this tonight, other than one theater in Los Angeles, is here.”
He’s not kidding. Rivers has an uncanny ability to pull off minor miracles and get some of the year’s biggest movies to show up on the Valley Isle. Case in point: last year, Ridley Scott’s famously re-shot All The Money in the World had its local premiere just weeks after the late-addition Christopher Plummer scenes had wrapped.
In my interview with Rivers below, I address the admirable reason why he’s screening the Netflix title Roma at the Castle Theater, recall the time an irate audience member turned against an Amy Adams movie, and ponder just how he gets these awesome movies to show up at this time of year.
Barry Wurst: The way you pick films that audiences are dying to see, and give Maui movie buffs an early taste of the big Oscar winners, has always been a real gift for local film buffs. How did the idea of FirstLight come about?
Barry Rivers: I was aware of all the awards season screenings taking place each year and thought Maui’s meaningful entertainment industry holiday season visitors might take advantage of the chance to see the most critically acclaimed and award worthy movies of the year while on Maui if the opportunity was available. Turns out, as evidenced that we are presenting our 20th annual FirstLight this year, we got it right.
BW: What are some memories of your inaugural FirstLight?
BR: Getting support from Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin, all prominent film critics at the time, who thought this would work and be supported by the studios; and mini-majors and independent distributors, all of whom were always looking for new ways to promote their best releases of the year. I also remember being totally stoked when Blaise Noto, a friend of mine who had a second home on Maui — and who at the time was the EVP of Publicity at Sony Pictures — agreed to provide a few of Sony’s award season films and additionally reached out to friends of his at other studios. Meanwhile, I reached out to friends of mine at other studios, who I’d met at the Sundance Film Festival throughout the ‘80s and 90’s, to also support this FirstLight brainstorm.
BW: What were among the FirstLight selections?
BR: It was 20 years ago. I do remember that among the ten films that were shown at the inaugural FirstLight were American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, and The Sixth Sense.
BW: I recall hearing that Nocturnal Animals concluded its FirstLight premiere with an unhappy audience member hurling his shoe at the screen! How do you respond to patrons who don’t share your passion for the titles you select?
BR: While I know not every film is for everybody – and to be clear, I was never aware of the shoe throwing until you just brought it to my attention – if someone wants to talk about what they felt about a particular film, I’m always open to that. That said, people are allowed to their opinions and theirs might not always be mine and vice-versa. It’s also worth noting that for each June Maui Film Festival, we fastidiously work to find films that enlighten, entertain, and uplift the audience. At FirstLight — not being a fan of spending my adult life living entirely in a Pollyanna-colored bubble — I’ve always felt it important to open the blinds and windows and let each year’s zeitgeist, as reflected in each year’s unique list of film releases, weave at dark and light, up and down – an upbeat and downbeat tapestry. It’s a little thing I like to think of as an honest look at where the culture is, offer the best opportunity for us all to see what creative artists working in film are seeing and deeming important, to themselves and all of us writ large.
BW: I’m amazed every year with the films you bring to Maui. What are some of your proudest acquisitions for FirstLight?
BR: It a fair question. “I love all my children equally” could be one answer to that, but in reality, I love some more than others. For all but one year, when FirstLight did not have the projection format a certain studio insisted on and the festival’s wherewithal was unable to provide, I certainly count all (but the one as just noted) of the Academy Award winning Best Pictures since 1999! We’ve also had dozens and dozens of Best Director, Actor, Actress, Cinematographers, etc. Oscar-winners play at FirstLight. Beyond that, we’ve screened enough films in the last 20 years to have “earned,” so-to-speak, more than 1,000 nominees overall at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Independent Spirit Awards over our 20 years of FirstLight festivals. To name just ten of my favorites, the list would include: La La Land, Moonlight, Shakespeare in Love, Life Is Beautiful, Spotlight, The Big Short, 12 Years a Slave, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Artist, The Hurt Locker, Little Miss Sunshine, Good Night and Good Luck, Ray, A Beautiful Mind and Traffic. By the way, ask me again in a few days, and probably 50 percent of these would not be on it and there’d be seven or eight different ones listed. So much for the “favorite child” theory!
BW: What can we expect this year?
BR: A boutique FirstLight rather than one that is, as it’s been in the past, one that’s 12-14 days long and 40+ films wide… yet an event that will still be, as I’ve often described FirstLight, One Movie High. Think more of it as a “jewel box” where every jewel is different and they all sparkle and shine. We may also be adding one more film to the six we are currently announcing but won’t know that for another few days. Hoping for the best on that one. That said, your readers can find the complete schedule online at Mauifilmfestival.com.
BW: Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is officially on the line-up. Seeing it on the big screen was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had at the movies this year. The film just popped up on Netflix. Why are screening it at this year’s fest?
BR: While ROMA, one of the most critically acclaimed films of this, or any year, would be brilliant and powerful if viewed on a postage stamp, its stunning cinematography and panoramic verisimilitude deserves to be seen in all its cinematic glory. And for my money, Netflix’s Awards Season strategic plan (which included a few weeks of theatrical screenings in New York, Los Angeles, and other venues in actual movie theaters) matters. Anyone who wants to see the film should take note and take advantage of the Big Screen opportunity Maui Film Festival’s FirstLight: Academy Screenings on Maui Castle Theater makes possible. Not to mention that you never know who you’ll see at FirstLight.
BW: You mentioned at last year’s FirstLight that you were contemplating not continuing it and instead spending the holidays with your family- certainly an understandable alternative. Nevertheless, what are your thoughts on keeping it going?
BR: I pulled this year together in 10 days and that made sense vis a vis having two beautiful granddaughters that I’d spend every waking moment with given their special, magical ages. So, while I didn’t stop doing it, I did re-imagine its scope. Next year, who knows. I’ll probably look around for what films would be available to me sooner than I did this year and just take it from there. Spontaneity has its time and place and that’s where I most like living. Stay tuned.
FirstLight is Dec 21-22nd at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Tickets are available at mauiarts.org or by calling 808-242-SHOW (7469).
Image courtesy of IMDB