It’s 10am on a Saturday morning outside Abu Dhabi Theatre on the Breakwater. A pair of cleaners are busily sweeping away rubbish from the red carpet after last night’s gala screening of the political campaign thriller The Ides of March.
Inside, in the upper reaches of the dome-shaped landmark building, in a small office at the end of a long corridor lined with oversized film canisters, a group of Abu Dhabi Film Festival employees sit at their laptops, knocking back their morning Starbucks while Glenn Frey’s The Heat is On from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack blares out from a set of desktop speakers.
This is where Nina Rodriguez, the film festival’s traffic manager, and film revisers Warren Sharon and Blair Stewart are based. And it’s here they’re tasked with ensuring Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s 10-day programme runs smoothly.
Although they’re modest to a fault in their assessment of their jobs (“Why would you want to interview us?” asks Rodriguez when I arrive), the fact is, without their logistical and technical expertise, the entire festival operation would grind to a halt.
Rodriguez is an easy-going German, who spends three-quarters of the year directing the programme for the Guanajuato International Film Festival in central Mexico, before jetting in to Abu Dhabi for the other three months.
While here, like a chess grandmaster scrutinising a particularly complex board, she must track the movements of each film to guarantee it reaches Abu Dhabi on time, gets dispatched to the correct screening theatre, before being shipped back to its producers, or onwards to the next festival.
After this year’s schedule was finalised in August, producers were given a September 29 deadline to submit their movies. However, with almost 180 films being screened this year, only half actually met that deadline, and today, on the third day of the festival, three movies are still elsewhere. Rodriguez appears unperturbed.
“I’ve got them all tracked, so I’m not too worried,” she says. “Two are being couriered here at this moment, and one is coming to the festival with the director, which is quite common. If it’s a small production and a film is being premiered here, the director may have spent years working on it ... so they want to make sure it arrives safely. Also, you get cases where the director is meddling with the film in the editing suite right up to the last minute and ends up delaying its dispatch.
“Our main issue arises when we source a film from a big distributor, because there’s so many people and so much money involved, they’re loath to let it out of their hands for very long for fear of piracy. So, big Hollywood and Bollywood films tend to come in very late.”
Each film is distributed in a variety of formats, either traditional 35mm reels, videotape, or, as is becoming increasingly common, in digital cinema package (DCP) format on a hard drive.
It is film prints, the most traditional of those formats, that cause the most problems. If it has been on the circuit for some time, having been screened at several festivals, there’s a fair chance the print will have picked up some wear and tear. That’s when Stewart and Sharon come into their own, by speeding through the print when it arrives to assess its quality and check it for signs of degradation. On the rare occasions that the damage makes the film unwatchable,
another print must be requested.
“Maybe the lab has done something wrong, or maybe another film festival has scratched it, or you open the canister expecting one thing and find something entirely different,” explains Stewart, a Canadian whose CV includes stints at the Toronto and Edinburgh film festivals. “I had one time in Toronto when the film was supposed to be a Swedish children’s movie and ended up being a Serbian horror flick. There would definitely have been some tears if I hadn’t spotted that.”
“A certain amount of damage is acceptable, a lot is not,” adds Sharon. “Our standards are high for presenting films, so if it’s not up to scratch we just can’t show it. So we’ll have to get Nina to get in touch with the filmmakers or the distributors and get them to send another print.”
Despite the scope for calamity, Stewart says there’s only been one occasion where a movie screening had to be called off.
“That film arrived at 2am on the day of the screening,” he says, recalling a moment from the Abu Dhabi film festival archives. “We had the trial run at 8am, so we only had a small window of opportunity to make sure the film was fine.
“We soon found a major issue. They’d filmed in HD [high definition video] then converted it into 35mm, but hadn’t made the correction and [the print] was stuttering all over the place.
“The filmmaker’s representative turned up and told us ‘the director’s done something new and revolutionary with it’, but he didn’t know what he was talking about. [The film] was just in the wrong format. We were working like crazy to get it fixed, but eventually we had to cancel the screening, which was pretty upsetting.”
Sharon, a chatty New Yorker, was a full-time projectionist for AMC Cinemas in his home state, until being made redundant last year. Now he leads an itinerant life, plying his trade across the world at international film festivals such as Miami, Sundance in Utah, Tribeca in New York, Doha Tribeca and the Dominican Republic.
“In the United States,” he says, “especially in the major cities, the multiplexes all use digital projectors. All you have to do is press a button to play the film, consequently a lot of trained projectionists are being laid off. But for these film festivals, because there’s not a unified format, they still need technicians like us.
“It’s kind of a nomadic lifestyle, which can be frustrating sometimes. But then again it’s a cool thing to be in Abu Dhabi.”
Just as projectionists are an endangered species, Sharon fears that film technicians will one day suffer the same fate.
“It’s true that every year less and less films arrive in 35mm format. Most are sent in DCP format on a hard drive,” he says. “Pretty soon, they’re gonna start transmitting them by satellite. It’s been done already, but the infrastructure is not there yet in most parts of the world for it to be done regularly.” “So then, we’ll all be made redundant,” adds Stewart.
“But until then, it’s a pretty exciting life. You know, last night we were sat in our office and we could hear the crowd going crazy at the red carpet event downstairs.
“We’re all total film nuts and [because of the work we do] we get to see all these art house and regional films we wouldn’t be able to see elsewhere. And you know, it beats working in a factory.”