Tom Hall is answering and deleting emails, clearing his head with each reply and trashed piece of spam.
He’s sitting at a desk on the second floor of the Sarasota Film Festival offices — a 1926 bungalow on Cocoanut Avenue converted into the festival’s downtown headquarters — looking almost mechanical in his efforts to keep his inbox uncluttered.
When he’s through with this task, a look of satisfaction registers on his face. There’s comfort in knowing he has zero messages vying for his attention, even if the moment is fleeting.
“I’m too anal retentive to just let it pile up,” Hall says, stepping away from the all-too familiar glow of his computer screen.
By the time this interview is over, there will be a dozen more emails to sort through. And Hall, who this season was promoted to festival director, will have another 12 hours left to his workday.
With the festival just two weeks away, the SFF staff is operating in high gear. Phones incessantly are ringing, merchandise is being disseminated, hotel accommodations are being made, and film guides are piling up.
“As a style of working, I like it,” Hall says of the March rush. “You can hyper focus. But you can’t obsess over the films, because it’s a finite thing. You either meet your deadlines or you don’t. It’s not like meeting quarterly with stockholders.”
Actually, meeting quarterly with stockholders sounds less stressful.
A part-time Sarasota resident, Hall has more on his mind than just movies.
Back home in Brooklyn, N.Y., his wife, Jessica, is nine months pregnant with their second child, a boy, due the week after the festival.
“Apparently I’m crappy at family planning,” Hall says dryly. “I’m going to go from no sleep to no sleep.”
Hired in 2004 as the festival’s director of programming, the 41-year-old Michigan native steadily climbed to the top of the festival food chain.
One of only a handful of year-round staffers, Hall was promoted in 2010 to artistic director. Two seasons later, it was announced that he would serve as director, a promotion festival president and board Chairman Mark Famiglio says was a no-brainer.
“The most appetizing thing about Tom Hall is watching him operate in a staff meeting three weeks before the festival,” Famiglio says. “He’s not just a movie geek. He’s a great manager. He’s organized, and he cares deeply about the independent film community.”
Hall grew up in Flint, Mich., where he spent much of his childhood hanging out in mall movie theaters.
His parents were avid card players. To keep their two sons occupied during bridge games, they would drop them off a nearby multiplex, where Hall and his younger brother would slip between movies all day.
Technically, it was illegal, but the theater employees found the kids so endearing, they turned a blind eye to the sneakiness. As a result, Hall watched more R-rated movies in the 1970s than most adults three times his age.
“It really shaped my youth,” he says with a chuckle. “Flint wasn’t exactly an arts and cultural hotbed. Watching all those movies as a kid — it’s one of the main reasons why I got into film.”
This also explains his movie-viewing fortitude.
This year, he and fellow programmers, Magida Diouri and Caley Fagerstrom, screened more than 1,000 independent films.
From this glut they selected 235 projects — a combination of narrative live action and animated features, shorts and documentaries gleaned from attending other festivals and viewing hundreds of filmmaker submissions.
“Ninety-five percent of what plays in our festival will probably never play in Sarasota again,” Hall says. “It’s really like a curatorial process. You’re putting brackets around a year, and you’re saying, ‘Here’s what’s interesting now.’ There’s so much stuff out there it’s impossible for people to see it all. As a curator you want people to trust you. We have a diverse audience, and I’m casting a wide net.”
As the festival’s gatekeeper, Hall has the final say on every piece of cinema. This responsibility is one of the best and worst parts of the job.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Hall says of rejecting films. “We said yes to 235 people and no to 800.”
And, then, there’s the matter of star wattage.
To the average mainstream moviegoer, the Sarasota Film Festival is a glittery, red carpet event that draws celebrities to the area. Last year it was Christopher Plummer, Geena Davis and Harry Connick Jr. This year it’s Frank Langella.
To Hall, the fixation on celebrities is a nuisance.
The consummate professional, Hall says he could care less about the celebrity status of his festival attendees.
In fact, in eight years he’s only been star struck twice: when the festival hosted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog and actress/director Liv Ullmann, both of whom Hall had admired for years.
“People make a big deal about the getting a major star, but I’ve never thought about it like that,” he says. “I’m passionate about their work and interested in what they’re doing, but hobnobbing? I wouldn’t even use that word.”
This doesn’t mean he’s jaded. He’s just too studious to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of the thing, a character trait his colleagues are well aware of, especially Famiglio.
“He visited us at the Nantucket Film Festival last year,” Famiglio says. “We couldn’t even get Tom to hang out and have lunch because he was stuck in movie theaters all day. He’s totally committed to viewing and analyzing every film. He lives and breathes it.”
IF YOU GO
The Sarasota Film Festival runs April 13 through April 22. Tickets are available at the SFF box office inside the Hollywood 20 lobby. For more information, call 364-9514 or visit sarasotafilmfestival.com.
After watching “Robot & Frank” warm the hearts of moviegoers at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival director Tom Hall embarked on a serious mission to bring the movie and its star, Frank Langella, to Sarasota.
Directed by Todd Solondz, the movie is a touching and unlikely buddy comedy set in the not-so-distant future. Langella stars as an aging jewel thief who bonds with his caretaker robot (voice by actor Peter Sarsgaard).
“We knew it was perfect for Sarasota,” Hall says. “I only hope people cast aside any preconceptions they might have about it. It’s a touching movie and a real crowd-pleaser.”