Harold Matzner Hosts Biggest Gala in Palm Springs Film Festival History

By Betty Francis

For more than a decade of Januaries, I’ve been saying to friends and family, “Don’t try to reach me next week, I’ll be on Planet Film Fest.” This year, the PSIFF orbit exploded from a planet into an international universe, as it became larger, more influential, and more international than ever. The numbers tell the story:

» 413 screenings of 176 films shown on 16 screens, from over 60 countries, to more than 130,000 film goers.

» Sellouts at many hotels and strongly increased sales at restaurants and other local businesses.

» Thousands and thousands of national and international electronic and print media mentions, an estimated 2.5 billion impressions of the Palm Springs brand, worldwide, in dozens of languages . . . value in the millions of dollars.

» The gala was attended by 2,400 people, and over 700 support staff and volunteers.

» A huge number of onlooker fans, some of whom began lining up almost 24 hours before the red carpet was rolled out, and the arriving stars, especially Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, and Saoirse Ronan were exceptionally generous, posing for selfies with fans and signing hundreds of autographs.

» One final note: The staggering success of the gala was funded by the generosity of its underwriters, five local philanthropists: film festival board members Donna MacMillan, Helene Galen, and JoAnn McGrath, along with gala chair Jim Houston, and PSIFF chairman of the board Harold Matzner.

Their combined underwriting of over $500,000 funded all Gala costs, and enabled the gala to use a large portion of the $2,400,000 raised to support the festival’s screenings and its educational and outreach programs.

The gala’s presenting sponsor was BIGHORN, represented by its chairman and managing partner, RD Hubbard, with probably 100 BIGHORN members in attendance.

The two other major gala sponsors were Entertainment Tonight and Mercedes-Benz, with Mercedes-Benz as the official vehicle of the festival.

The festival’s title sponsor is the City of Palm Springs and the presenting sponsors are the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, The Desert Sun, Spencer’s Restaurant, and Entertainment Tonight.

The festival’s supporting foundations are The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, Gannett Foundation, The Auen Foundation, Harold & Arlene Schnitzer Care Foundation, and the Frederick Loewe Foundation.

Other key participants included event planner Shari Kelley, who assisted gala chair Jim Houston every step of the way, including his choice of the 27,000 orchid blooms decorating the tables and a crystal Buddha souvenir for each guest. Houston also chose the menu – beef short ribs by Savoury’s caterers, who produced over 3,000 meals for the gala evening.

Honorary Gala and Festival Chairpersons were Rob Moon, Mayor of Palm Springs, Jeff L. Grubbe, chairman of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and the great Agua Caliente Tribal leader, Richard M. Milanovich, in memoriam.

The gala was produced by Event Management Productions, executive producer Richard DeSantis, producer Alise Mauritzson, director Bill Finlay, and assistant to the producer, Jill Ostland. The 26-piece Awards Gala orchestra was conducted by Doc Poster.


Although there were no threats or specific concerns, security was tight. Very tight. Every person entering the Convention Center – even the fans huddled outside – had to pass through a metal detector. In his opening remarks chairman Matzner said, “We have a very large and effective security presence here tonight both outside and inside the Convention Center. This security is designed to be both highly preventative and very responsive to any incident.”

He went on to say, “As we sit here tonight the Convention Center is encircled by a significant number of armored SWAT Team vehicles and a solid shield of police and Sheriff’s deputies positioned at every single door of the building’s entire perimeter. Then he added sadly, “This is not what we should have to do here in America, but it is the right thing to do at this time.”


Hostess Mary Hart opened her part of the program by quoting an anonymous A-List Hollywood couple she overheard as they were preparing to hit the red carpet that night. The A-List “he” said to his A-List “she”, “Honey are you ready for this?” referring not only to our own PSIFF gala but the kick-off of the entire, competitive Hollywood awards season which ends with the career-making Academy Awards.

Several veiled references to the Oscars were made in the star’s introductions and acceptance speeches, the most obvious coming from Saoirse Ronan’s introduction of Cate Blanchett when she said of Cate, “An Oscar nod on January 14 would surprise no one.”

The connection between our PSIFF honorees and the Academy Awards is interesting: in the last three years, in the year in which they were honored, 28 of the Gala’s 31 honorees were then nominated for an Academy Award. Here are this year’s PSIFF honorees and their films, which you can use to keep score on Oscar night:

Name PSIFF Award Film
Alicia Vikander Rising Star “The Danish Girl
Tom McCarthy Visionary “Spotlight”
Brie Larson Breakthrough “Room”
Rooney Mara Spotlight “Carol”
Michael Fassbender International Actor “Steve Jobs”
Saoirse Ronan International Actress “Brooklyn”
Bryan Cranston Spotlight “Trumbo”
Johnny Depp Desert Palm Actor “Black Mass”
Matt Damon Chairman’s Award “The Martian”
Cate Blanchett Desert Palm Actress “Carol”
Christian Bale, Steve Carell, etc. Ensemble Award “The Big Short”

Another presence felt throughout the evening was that of the legendary producer Jerry Weintraub, who died July 6 of a heart attack at age 77. Matt Damon, in his award acceptance speech, thanked Matzner for including in the program a moving tribute video from producer Steven Soderbergh about Weintraub, saying, “He was one of the best people I’ve ever known and he loved this place so much, I miss him every day.”


Harold Matzner Hosts Biggest Gala in Palm Springs Film Festival history 1

I didn’t attend the lavish After Party, which started at 9:15 PM at the Parker Palm Springs, but two of our guest reporters, Madeline Zuckerman and Judy Vossler, reported it as “light and airy, feeling like a real Hollywood party with great music,” crowded with Hollywood and local guests. BIGHORN’s Judy 

These “Angel” sponsors included:

  • Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
  • Agua Caliente & Spa Resort Casinos
  • Arlene Schnitzer
  • Auen Foundation
  • Bank of America
  • Bennion DeVille Homes BIGHORN
  • City of Palm Springs
  • Dale and Leslie Chihuly Desert Sun Media Group Diageo North America Donna MacMillan
  • Eddie Verdugo Jr. Eisenhower Medical Center Entertainment Tonight
  • Fox Searchlight
  • Fred Noble
  • Gary Hall
  • Greater PS Convention & Visitors Bureau Guthy-Renker
  • Harold Matzner
  • Helene Galen
  • Jack & Patti Grundhofer James R. Houston
  • Jan Salta
  • JoAnn McGrath
  • John Fowler
  • John Kennedy Studio
  • John Wessman
  • Jordan Schnitzer
  • Lu Barnes
  • Mary Ann LaBahn Mercedes-Benz
  • PS Convention Center
  • PS Disposal
  • PS Resorts
  • Regal Entertainment Group Sandy Wessman
  • Slovak, Baron, Empey, Murphy & Pinkney
  • Tim Hanlon
  • Treasury Wine Estates Twentieth Century Fox Wells Fargo
  • Wintec Energy Ltd.

Allen was the first person through the door to congratulate Harold Matzner and after party producers Garry Kief and Terry Ketover on a great gala evening. Among other guests were Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, and Saoirse Ronan chatting together around a tray of small bites ; Barry Manilow, Greg and Stacey Renker, COD’s Joel Kinnamon and Chris Parman, Bill Fold (Goldenvoice) and Alexis Jiaras, Donna MacMillan and Bill Nicholson, Lucie Arnaz and Larry Luckinbill, Helen Mirren, Helene Galen and Jamie Kabler, Lenny Abrahamson and child star Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), the ensemble cast from “The Big Short”, Tom McCarthy, Mayors Rob Moon of Palm Springs and Stan Henry of Cathedral City, and Paul Dano.

As posted in The Desert Sun, Sunday, January 10, 2016