I am surprised by the film industry and the media’s continued willingness to give a free pass to entrepreneur Carlos de Abreu’s Hollywood Film Festival, a cannily constructed facade which honors stars, filmmakers and craftspeople and lines the pockets of de Abreu.
He’s created an awards show timed perfectly at the height of the awards season, which he presents inside the context of a film festival. While it is not considered to be a bonafide quality film fest curated by top programmers, like Telluride, Sundance or New York, and its premieres are often less than stellar, Hollywood players participate because it supports the award cause. It gives vying award season contenders yet another opportunity to grab attention. If de Abreu gives an award, why wouldn’t any self-respecting self-promoting player show up for their five minutes of PR? This years award winners include Hilary Swank (Amelia), Robert DeNiro (Everybody’s Fine) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).
Having served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in Mozambique before being forced out of the country in 1975 by the communist regime, de Abreu came to Hollywood after he got tired of being a marketing director for the jeweler Cartier. He studied screenwriting at UCLA. He got a foothold in the film industry by putting on conferences every two months to let screenwriters pitch Hollywood buyers. He started giving out the Hollywood Screenplay Discovery Awards, and co-wrote with Howard Smith a book for Random House called Opening the Door to Hollywood. He sent scripts to agencies, and in 1996 Ted Kotcheff optioned two of the winners’ screenplays.
De Abreu got involved with the internet in 1994, started a website, and collected over 3000 domain names, all related to Hollywood, including the Hollywood Film Festival, which he launched in 1996. Married to TV actress Janice Pennington (The Price is Right), de Abreu worked his way up the Hollywood social ladder, throwing dinner parties and becoming friendly with the likes of Kotcheff, Mark Rydell, Sherry Lansing and Mike Medavoy (a Hollywood Film Award winner for the flop All the King’s Men).
While de Abreu took advantage of his social contacts with agents and studio heads when he mounted the festival, it wasn’t taken seriously until he hired the powerhouse PR firm PMKHBH (now he hires different agencies every year) and in 2002 brought on their client, respected producer Paula Wagner, a former CAA agent, as his co-chair. Her producing partner Tom Cruise then attended the screening of their presentation Narc. After Cruise, many more stars such as Harrison Ford followed him down the red carpet, either as presenters or award winners. They include Clint Eastood, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Diane Keaton, John Travolta, Goldie Hawn, Naomi Watts, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Aniston, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Nic Cage and Benicio del Toro.
De Abreu moved the festival from October to August and back to October again to best capitalize on the awards season. He recognized that if you give someone who is campaigning for an Oscar an award, they will come. That was all he had to do.
The actual programming of some 80 films tends to be light also-rans left over from other fests. The screenings serve as a backdrop for the big awards night (this year, October 26) when everyone walks the red carpet to accept their prize. De Abreu admits that he can do whatever he pleases, with no oversight.
There is no organization, no philanthropic goal behind the Hollywood Film Festival, beyond de Abreu’s stated hope that he is bridging the gap between established Hollywood and emerging talent. This festival is a business enterprise, selling tickets, VIP passes, sponsorships (this year, Starz) and studio tables. How much money does it make? De Abreu tells no one.