Carl Spence began his career at Seattle International Film Festival as a seasonal contract worker in 1994. At that point, the organization was an annual affair housed in the Egyptian Theatre.
During his tenure as SIFF’s artistic director, he helped the festival grow into a year-round operation, oversaw the purchase of SIFF Film Center, saved the Egyptian Theatre and the Uptown Theatre, and showed over 10,000 films.
As a student at the University of Washington, he ran the Arts and Entertainment office. He programmed many music and film events there, and prides himself on showing “weird” double features. “I’d pair Naked Lunch with Beauty and the Beast,” he says.
This highbrow/lowbrow programming, designed to bring audiences in with the low and expose them to the high, aligned with the populist aesthetic of SIFF’s founders, Dan Ireland and Darryl MacDonald.
“It sounds cliché, but there is something for everyone,” Spence says. “The challenge is to make everyone know it’s for them and not just the cinephiles and elites.”
To this end, Spence says he was glad to premiere big movies such as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, “before Gibson got all…you know,” and, more recently, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Developing relationships with smaller-scale filmmakers such as Danny Boyle (who received the Golden Space Needle for Trainspotting), Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, The Artist), and Ventura Pons (Ignasi M., Food of Love) has also been a highlight of his time at SIFF.
“I could continue on with this, but I’ve done what I’ve set out to achieve,” he says, adding that he feels as if SIFF’s reached a “pinnacle of success.” It’s time, he feels, for someone else to take the reins.
He’ll be transitioning out of his role over the course of the next six months. Beth Barrett, who's been SIFF’s director of programming for 13 years, will serve as the interim AD while the search for a replacement commences. The company is also on the hunt for a new executive director. Spence says an announcement on that front is coming.
According to Spence, the big challenge facing the next director is figuring out “how to shift the paradigm in terms of who is making films and showing films.” Internationally, he claims, there’s a higher percentage of women being given jobs in the industry, and he believes SIFF needs to be part of that conversation.
“Film festivals began as a way to bridge divides,” he said. “But how do we go beyond promoting diversity. How do we use what we do to further change, and to accelerate it?”
The next AD will also have to address the “changing landscape” of film distribution. “We’re used to small screens and immediate access,” he says. “If you’re the only place that can see it, they’ll show up. But how do you provide an experience that’s going to make them come?”
Former SIFF board president and current board member, Rich Fassio, says they’re looking for somebody who “has vision, social awareness, consciousness about new media” and who is “in touch with education, and what is making that world work.” He hopes SIFF’s education department will continue to establish meaningful relationships with younger audiences.
SIFF board member Scott Lipsky stresses the new AD must have a “passion for film combined with empathy for the for the region in a way that will allow the festival and the organization to positively affect the people around us.”
Spence jumps in: “And a good sense of humor.”
Spence’s immediate plans include taking a vacation for the first time in 20 years. He calls the job “all consuming,” and says that the rest of the staff works just as hard. “You know that Spike Jonze movie, Her, where everyone is staring at the phone all the time?” he asks. “I feel like that’s happening to me.”
He and his husband have kids—a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old—and he says he’d like to pick them up from school.
As far as his next career move? “I want to do something new,” he says. “It could be in music, film, theater, I don't know.”
Before he started working for SIFF, Spence wondered how someone could get a job there. “It seemed like the most amazing job anyone could have. That turned out to be true,” he says.
The board members confirm that Spence will have a lifetime pass to the festival.