The USA Film Festival that began almost 40 years ago at SMU is happening now through May 4 at the new AMC NorthPark 15 theater.
Scrolling through pictures of himself with John Wayne, Lily Tomlin and a young John Travolta, Bob Porter admits one regret of his 29 years as a film and theater columnist at the Dallas Times Herald, “I wish I would have taken more pictures.”
In terms of the film industry, Porter has seen and done his share. Among his many stories of associating with filmmakers and profiling celebrities, he reflects fondly on those of his involvement in co-founding the USA Film Festival in 1971 with Dallas filmmaker L. M. “Kit” Carson and Don Safran, Porter’s colleague at the Dallas Times Herald.
The late 1960s marked a transitional time in Hollywood. Young filmmakers and actors saw the need to break away from the control of major studios, and the independent film movement began. Despite this movement toward artistic independence in American film, the few American film festivals in existence at the time concentrated solely on bringing attention to foreign films.
“There was an atmosphere among people who covered films that American films and filmmakers were not being recognized,” Porter recalls, “although within the industry foreign filmmakers would almost inevitably credit American filmmakers for inspiring them.” The three co-founders saw in this another need, and the USA Film Festival became the first major festival to exclusively honor American film.
The first festival took place in the spring of 1971 at the Bob Hope Theater on the SMU campus. Relying on the habit of filmmakers to visit SMU when promoting in Dallas and the university’s long-standing relationship with Bob Hope-who agreed to help fund the festival with a scholarship program he established-Kermit Hunter, then dean of the Meadows School of the Arts, agreed to house the festival.
Porter attributes much of the festival’s early success to the balance of those who became involved. Carson understood the independent side of film, while Bill Jones, then head of the film department at SMU, represented the academic community. The co-founders employed the services of New York publicist John Springer to bring the festival to the attention of well-known filmmakers and celebrities. Even the students took part in the collaborative effort, working the projectors and assisting the personalities that came to town.
The festival proved to be an immediate hit. Audiences filled the Bob Hope Theater to capacity nearly every evening the first year. The success continued to grow in the following years at SMU. Many actors and filmmakers attended the festival in its early years, including Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Andy Warhol and Alan Alda. Beginning with George Stevens in 1971, the festival honored a filmmaker each year with the Great Director Tribute.
Porter recalls a favorite moment during the 1972 Great Director Tribute to Frank Capra, watching a skeptical audience shift and become receptive to his film “Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington.”
“I never will forget-by the end of the movie people were on their feet applauding as Capra came down the aisle [for a Q&A].” Porter also points out that the USA Film Festival encouraged interaction between filmmaker and audience from the beginning, becoming one of the first in the world to host on-stage discussions.
The festival continued to expand, incorporating a Master Screen Artist Tribute in 1974, with Gregory Peck as the first honoree as well as other special tributes. Other additions over the years include the Academy-sanctioned National Short Film and Video Competition in 1979, KidFilm, the nation’s oldest and largest children’s film festival, and many other year-round events. Porter remained connected to the festival as a writer and reporter for many years, even after it left SMU.
Now in its 36th year, the festival moves to a new location, unveiling the new state-of-the-art AMC NorthPark 15 theater. Ann Alexander, the festival’s current managing director, says that the AMC NorthPark 15’s cutting edge auditoriums should impress festival goers and the new CenterPark garden adjacent to the theater will offer a nice setting for receptions honoring celebrity and filmmaker guests.
Porter admits his fondest memories of the festival are from when it was at SMU, but he is excited about the new theater and is astonished and delighted that the festival is still in Dallas.