Leading Man

By: Charlie Huisking

The 53-year-old Famiglio, a prominent commercial real-estate developer and the owner of a local information technology company, has been a fixture in Sarasota business, social and philanthropic circles for decades. He travels in private jets and has a bayfront estate on Siesta Key where he often hosts fund-raising parties for nonprofit groups. He hangs out […]


asset_upload_file703_29266.jpgThe 53-year-old Famiglio, a prominent commercial real-estate developer and the owner of a local information technology company, has been a fixture in Sarasota business, social and philanthropic circles for decades. He travels in private jets and has a bayfront estate on Siesta Key where he often hosts fund-raising parties for nonprofit groups. He hangs out with celebrity friends like singer Michael Stipe of REM fame. Nearly 500 VIPs attended his lavish wedding to movie-star-pretty attorney Jennie Lascelle, held at the Ringling Museum in 2006, a ceremony featuring a Beatles-style rock band, a full orchestra and a closing 30-minute fireworks display. The couple has twin daughters.

Famiglio has been involved with the festival since its inaugural year in 1999, when he provided a jet to fly in some of the Hollywood stars. He became president of the board of directors in May 2008, after then-president Ian Black and executive director Jody Kielbasa were edged out amid concerns over a rising debt. Famiglio’s critics call his ascension to power a “coup.” But he and his supporters say he grudgingly agreed to lead in a crisis, when no one else would step up.

When Famiglio took over, the festival’s debt exceeded $600,000, according to its 2007-08 IRS form. Almost a third of that amount was owed to Famiglio, who had made several loans and was the landlord for office space the festival was renting. Famiglio cut the festival staff and promised a scaled-down, cost-conscious 2009 festival. Some in the community wondered if the festival would happen at all, since all arts groups were struggling in the tanking economy. However, the event ran as scheduled from March 27-April 5, on half the previous budget, although without some of the glamour and glitz that had been festival hallmarks.

Pared down as it was, the festival was still judged a success by most observers. Programmer Tom Hall presented a slate of quality films as usual. Actors Woody Harrelson, Jon Voight, Bill Paxton, Steve Buscemi and Stanley Tucci walked the red carpet and spoke at seminars and lectures. Even baseball star David Ortiz was on hand to introduce a film, thanks to a Famiglio connection.

THE BEST FESTIVAL EVER?
In newspaper articles afterward, Famiglio called the festival the best ever and said it finished in the black. The festival’s May 2009 profit and loss statement does show a $25,889 profit, but that figure is arrived at only because $164,973 in forgiven debt is counted as income.

Famiglio and board member Weiner made substantial donations to the 2009 festival, but overall, income from sponsorships and special events was down dramatically. Some board members worried that the festival was becoming too reliant on one or two individuals and wasn’t broadening its donor pool.

By the end of July, about one-third of the 23 members of the board had resigned (although not all voiced complaints about Famiglio or the festival). Welch says he stepped down in part because he was frustrated that the festival still hadn’t paid bills to some local vendors dating from 2008. Other vendors had to reluctantly settle for partial payment of the money owed them.

“In the past, we always had paid our vendors,” says Welch, a retired physician. “Sometimes it took a while, but we had always paid everyone by the time of the following festival. But this time, people were asking me when they were going to get paid. It was embarrassing. I didn’t like the way they were being treated.”

Former board member Lou Schultz says one reason he quit was because he felt Famiglio didn’t welcome input from board members.

“Mark made the [2009] festival happen, and the community benefited from it happening,” he says. “But Mark didn’t use the board to help him. Like any entrepreneur, he is used to being a single decision-maker and relying on his own belief system. But in a nonprofit organization, you need to rely on a team. To Mark, the only letters in ‘TEAM’ are ‘ME.’”

Other board members complain that minutes and financial statements were rarely handed out. 

“We had the fiduciary responsibility, but we were out of the loop,” one says.

But Famiglio’s admirers have no complaints about his leadership. “Mark has strong opinions, but he listens to suggestions and ideas,” says board member Randi East. “He likes to hear different views. He can be perceived as gruff, but he has a good heart and he means well.”

Weiner says the complaints of “a few nay-sayers” on the board shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. She describes Famiglio as someone “who doesn’t like to be inflammatory or confrontational. He’d rather be a healer than a destroyer.”

While Weiner says it’s regrettable some vendors didn’t receive everything they were owed, “This was a difficult situation, and hard decisions had to be made. But if Mark hadn’t stepped in, the festival could have gone bankrupt, and then the vendors wouldn’t have received anything.”

Another Famiglio supporter says the old regime shouldn’t be too smug about what he called the “questionable practice” of using income raised for a subsequent festival to pay the bills of a previous one.

The complicated feelings that Famiglio engenders are reflected by a festival observer who has dealt with him for years and who offered a mixture of praise and criticism: “Mark has a huge ego, he’s a loose cannon, and he promises one person one thing and then tells someone else he never said that,” comments the insider, who, like many interviewed for this story, wouldn’t be identified. “I don’t know whether that’s Machiavellian, to throw people off balance, or if he just forgets what he tells people.

“But I also really like Mark. He’s very funny, fun to be around, and he’s so smart. He’s always thinking 10 steps ahead.”

OUT OF CHARACTER
Famiglio is indeed normally an interviewer’s dream: outspoken, witty, fast-talking, occasionally profane and hard to interrupt. He loves to take you aside, put his arm around you and whisper conspiratorially, as if he’s sharing a bit of gossip no one else
has learned.

But for this story, Famiglio was restrained and circumspect when asked about his critics’ complaints. He chose his words carefully and frequently declined to comment. “I’m trying to hold back,” he said, explaining that he didn’t want to get in a tit-for-tat with his detractors. But then he offered a second-hand swipe, relating a recent conversation with a local banker: “The guy told me, it looks like you’ve gotten rid of all the dead wood on the board,” Famiglio says.

He bristles at Welch’s contention that the festival had strayed from the vision of its founders. “The only change in vision is that we are running it more responsibly, in a community that respects fiscal responsibility,” Famiglio says.

As for his leadership style, “I don’t think I’m a bully at all,” he says. “Now, if me rejecting some suggestion that’s going to cost us lots of money  and doesn’t make sense, if that’s being a bully, well, so be it. But I think that’s just being responsible.”

According to a May 2009 financial statement obtained by Sarasota Magazine, the festival had liabilities of $817,000. Famiglio didn’t provide current financial statements, despite repeated promises to do so, but he says the debt is now less than $200,000. He adds that the reduction came in part because he forgave about $400,000 that was owed to him, and he says more  sponsorship money had come in and additional vendors had forgiven some money they were owed.

The 2010 festival is scheduled for April 9-18, and Famiglio is confident the festival will attract eager sponsors and vendors who want to take part. Phil Mancini, the co-owner of Michael’s On East, one of the festival’s largest vendors, says he’ll be involved again, even though he wasn’t paid $93,000 owed from the 2008 festival.

“But we got almost 100 percent of what we were owed for 2009, all but about $5,000,” he says. “I’ve been involved with the festival for 11 years, and only one year I didn’t get paid, so I can’t get too upset. And I have faith that they are going to solve their problems. I think the festival is a tremendous community asset.”

As for the strong feelings surrounding Famiglio, Mancini chuckles. “I’ve known Mark for 20 years, and, look, you either get him or you don’t. He has a creative mind, and he took on a big task,” he says.

Gary Springer, who runs the New York public relations firm that has promoted the festival since the beginning, says he’s hoping to come back, too, though he is still owed a sum he wouldn’t disclose. “If I’m asked back, there’s a good chance I would return,” he says. “I feel a strong loyalty to the festival, and I believe in it. I know they are facing financial difficulties, and I’ve been patient and understanding about what’s still owed me.”

However, at least one longtime vendor, Spotlight Graphics, didn’t return to the festival in 2009 after accepting partial payment for 2008 bills.

The festival has named several new board members to fill the vacant seats, including Robert Warren, who runs an international investment management search firm. Warren says he came aboard because he’s impressed with the festival’s quality, and with Famiglio.

“I like Mark a lot,” Warren says. “He’s an action person; he gets things done. He attracts good people around him, and he has so many contacts in the film business. He really knows that world. He charges ahead so forcefully that if you just want to talk and go to meetings, maybe he doesn’t have time for you. But if you have something to offer, he will work with you.”

Famiglio says he’s particularly proud of making the festival more accessible in 2009, and of putting the focus on film rather than parties. “We cut prices by 35 to 70 percent to most events, and we reached new audiences,” he says. “We weren’t inclusive enough before.” He says in the next few months the festival will announce expanded outreach programs and collaborations with other arts groups.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Famiglio declines to talk about why the festival parted ways with executive director Kielbasa after the 2008 festival, a topic that still inspires lots of debate among festival followers. He says that the severance agreement with Kielbasa prevents him from commenting. Kielbasa, now the director of the Virginia Film Festival, declined an interview request for the same reason.

Kielbasa’s departure was announced in the press as a resignation. But according to several insiders, Famiglio arrived at an executive committee meeting that May with a memo proposing that Kielbasa and board president Black step down (one Famiglio supporter remembers the situation differently, saying the memo wasn’t presented by Famiglio). The meeting was called while Welch, perhaps Kielbasa’s strongest supporter, was out of the country.

Kielbasa had been the public face of the festival since its inception, and during his tenure it had grown from a modest three-day event to a glittery 10-day festival that had attracted renowned names such as William H. Macy, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Altman and Liv Ullmann. In 2006, the board had given Kielbasa a new five-year contract and a raise to keep him from accepting a job at another festival.

But Kielbasa’s detractors began to feel that he had allowed the budget to mushroom out of control, and that he didn’t have enough business acumen. He also lost the support of some staff members, who began airing complaints about Kielbasa to the board. Some board members felt Kielbasa was spending too much time as a co-producer of The Deal, a Macy film that was backed by many Sarasota investors.

Kielbasa’s supporters argue that he always kept the board aware as he increased the budget, so he shouldn’t have been the scapegoat. And they say that the staff’s complaints about him were exaggerated by board members who wanted Kielbasa out. They maintain that his connection to the Macy film was good for the festival. And he has managed to put together an impressive lineup for the Virginia festival: Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, John Waters and Alan Ball.

The ouster of Kielbasa and Black got the executive board’s support and was approved a few days later by the full board. “But it was a fait accompli by the time it came to the full board,” Schultz says. “Jody and Ian were already gone. There may have been good reasons to make changes. But there wasn’t any consultation with the full board ahead of time.”

Famiglio hasn’t replaced Kielbasa yet, but he says a new executive director will be named before the next festival. “We’re looking for somebody who is savvy about marketing and technology and understands people and film,” he says.

The festival’s managing director, Kathy Jordan, who is returning, is proud that in 2009, “We were able to produce a festival of the same caliber as years past for half the budget. We didn’t skimp on the festival; we just got more efficient about where the money went.”

Famiglio says he had no desire to succeed Black as president in May 2008. “I begged the board, told them I didn’t want to do this,” he says.

“That’s bull—-,” Schultz counters. “This was all orchestrated.”

Black was offered the chance to remain on the board after stepping aside as president, but he refused. Black, who inherited a deficit when he became president, says that before he stepped down, the festival was taking steps to reduce the deficit and cut the costs of producing the event. As part of that effort, he and Kielbasa in 2007 pursued a merger with the highly regarded Florida State University Film School. The plan, which called for creation of a film institute in Sarasota, would have ensured a stable future for the festival, Black says, and would have been an economic catalyst for the area by attracting more film business.

“We were very close to an agreement,” he says. “FSU wanted us, and we wanted them.” But Black says opposition from Famiglio and Weiner stopped the momentum, and the plan was shelved.

Famiglio says that a merger “was never going to happen, because FSU was never going to partner with an organization that had so much debt. I had discussions with the people at the top at FSU, who knew what was really possible, and that’s what they told me.”

But Frank Patterson, dean of FSU’s college of motion picture, television and recording arts, says that while FSU wasn’t going to write a check to cover the festival’s debt, “We were going to offer them some assistance in fund raising to retire the debt. We were prepared to host some fund-raising events, and to help them look outside the Sarasota area for additional revenue.”

Patterson says FSU was “excited to form a relationship with the festival, and help it evolve from a nice destination festival to a major player within the industry.” He says FSU’s offer was met with initial enthusiasm from the festival board. “But then I gather there was some internal friction on their part, and we decided to step aside,” he says.

Famiglio is irked by critics who imply the festival is just another acquisition to him, like the extensive real estate holdings he owns up and down the west coast. He says he’s involved with the festival and numerous other nonprofits because he wants to help the community he loves.

He is president of the United Cerebral Palsy board and vice chairman of the Van Wezel Foundation (whose chairman, Michael Martella, praises Famiglio as a team player who makes valuable contributions). He donated a storage building to the Ringling Museum of Art, which named a gallery in his honor. A member of the WUSF partners board, he once threw a party at his home for the public radio station that featured a winter performance, complete with artificial snowflakes, by the 100-member Key Chorale.

He’s particularly proud of his historic preservation efforts. A Mediterranean Revival residence he saved in downtown Sarasota is now the home of the FSU Medical School. He also purchased the historic Crosley Estate, now owned by Manatee County.

Not all of his involvements with local nonprofits and government entities have gone smoothly. He once sued the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, and a plan to provide storage for the Asolo Repertory Theatre fell apart. “He makes lots of promises, but doesn’t always deliver, and things are always more complicated than they appear,” says a board member of a nonprofit that has negotiated with Famiglio on a project.

Famiglio sees it a little differently. Problems often arise, he says, “because people think I’m so nice that they can demand anything, and then they start pushing me around.”

A native of Bryn Mawr, Pa., Famiglio, a National Merit Scholar, was accepted at Sarasota’s New College when he was 16. He graduated in 1975 with a focus on biological and physical sciences.
He returned to Sarasota for a visit in 1980 and ended up staying, renting a room for $50 a month downtown and driving a battered Vega. He got into real estate after purchasing a parcel near the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport and doubling his money a year later when he sold it to the U.S. Home corporation.

Other than his wedding day and the birth of his twins, Famiglio says, his major life-changing event was a 1998 traffic accident that required months of convalescence and has left him with “a bum left leg.” Though he went through painful physical therapy and had to give up his daily squash and racquetball games, “I felt lucky to have survived, and it taught me that every single day is a gift,” he says. “That’s when I got more actively involved in the community.”

Famiglio’s foes may think he’s way too active these days. But his supporters at the film festival are happy he’s their leading man. z

Award-winning reporter and columnist Charlie Huisking has covered Sarasota’s arts world for three decades, first for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and now as a contributing editor for this magazine. His new column, Backstage Pass, premieres on page 21 of this issue.

Mix Master


Tom Hall’s inspired blend of films keeps audiences applauding.

With all the recent changes at the Sarasota Film Festival, patrons are happy one critical component remains the same: Tom Hall is returning as the event’s director of programming.

Hall has been selecting movies for the festival since 2005. His provocative blend of American independent movies, beguiling foreign films and compelling documentaries regularly wins rave reviews from audiences. Last year, Hall drew particular praise for programming a retrospective of the work of the late director Hal Ashby (Shampoo, Coming Home) on the festival’s final night. The intimate event was viewed by most as a welcome change from the noisy black-tie tribute dinner that had closed the festival in the past.

Hall and his assistant, Holly Herrick, work year-round scouting movies at film festivals around the country and at screenings in New York City, where they both live. In fact, Hall was on his way to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival when we caught up with him in September. “I’m eager to come back to Sarasota next year,” says Hall, who is also artistic director of the Newport International Film Festival in Rhode Island. “We had enthusiastic audiences last year as usual, but I noticed we’re getting more new people, more people from out of town, which is great.”

After five years, Hall says he has a better feel for the Sarasota audience now. “They are more likely to go for a more mature foreign film than an edgy independent work from a young director with a hand-held camera,” he says. “But they are open to all kinds of experiences.”

In an average year, the festival gets up to 1,000 submissions from filmmakers hoping to be part of the line-up. But only a tiny percentage is picked. “I that that’s a testament to the advance scouting that we do,” Hall says.

A 1994 graduate of the University of Michigan, Hall was once the director of new media for Bravo/The Independent Film Channel. If he were programming the Tom Hall Film Festival, he’d include lots of classic foreign films, among them probably Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, his all-time favorite.

So does a passionate film lover like Hall want to make movies of his own one day? “No, I love cinema too much to inflict myself upon it,” Hall says.