If you look up the definition of resilience, you get a capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I’d say that is true and what also may be true is an ability to adapt to changing currents, winds and tides. I’m also a Sailing Master and US Merchant Marine (Ret). Being on the open waters as long as I have has given me a space to experience peace and enjoy the constant shifts of nature. Sailing is 95% peace and tranquility and 5% sheer terror.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Hunter Todd, Award-Winning Producer and Director and Chairman and CEO of WorldFest-Houston International Film Festivals Inc. Mr. Todd has the distinction of heading up the world’s longest running international independent film festival in the world. WorldFest has screened the first features of some of our most powerful directors in cinema including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Oliver Stone, Robert Rodriguez, John Lee Hancock and many more. This year marks the 53rd Annual WorldFest in Houston, TX.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Soon after graduating the College of William and Mary, I became Projects Officer in the US Army, NASA, and RCA Motion Picture Division. It was an incredible opportunity to learn how to make films and I honed my own craft as a filmmaker much like Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston and George Stevens. I became Executive Producer at the State Department’s Motion Picture division and simultaneously studied law at John Marshall (subsequently deciding that I wasn’t cut out for law). I journeyed into the film festival business in 1966 as Founder of Cinema America, where I produced more than 300 TV Specials, business films, theatrical feature films and television commercials winning over 100 international awards. In 1961, I organized a dedicated film society which morphed in 1968 into a competitive “Discovery” film festival which has evolved over 5 decades into WorldFest now about to celebrate its 53rd year.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I had the privilege of a very hefty sponsorship to create a film festival in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was a coveted destination for the Hollywood set and drew all the stars of the day — Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Catherine Deneuve and Katherine Hepburn. You would think it to be the ideal setting, a lush tropical island along with a great budget, however it was definitely not paradise. Living on a small island and trying to produce an international glamorous film festival is not the fun you think it would be. I got island fever and left the minute my contract was over. What I learned was though stars glitter, there’s no place like Texas. It’s where I’ve lived ever since.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re not just big thinkers and visionaries, we actually make the magic happen. It’s not always easy and sometimes you fly by the seat of your pants until the plane lands beneath your feet. I remember one festival, our sponsor had to have Kirk Douglas at the VIP dinner. I really was unsure I could make that happen though I assured them we’d make every effort to have the luminary materialize. I was getting ready to have a Kirk Douglas look alike stand in when the real Kirk Douglas confirmed at the last minute, and with some pretty pricey demands for our budget. But it was all worth it and proved to me that sometimes a Hail-Mary pass really can score.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Honestly, I’d have to say it was the gentleman who helped me into my first position with the US Army in the motion picture department. At the time, coming out of college and ROTC, I thought I would be assigned to Vietnam in some capacity. However, the commanding officer of my temporary duty station had attended Georgia Tech with my father; The CO called me into his office and said “Todd, I’m not letting you waste your time in ‘nam. I’m sending you to the future, young man.” And he assigned me to NASA Cape Canaveral and the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center to be a project’s officer and film director in the Signal Corps. I’ll never forget that he gave me a helping hand that directed me towards this particular career trajectory.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience?
Well, if you look up the definition of resilience, you get a capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. I’d say that is true and what also may be true is an ability to adapt to changing currents, winds and tides. I’m also a Sailing Master and US Merchant Marine (Ret). Being on the open waters as long as I have has given me a space to experience peace and enjoy the constant shifts of nature. Sailing is 95% peace and tranquility and 5% sheer terror.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people
Persistence and flexibility. But persistence alone is omnipotent…. That’s at the core of my ability to still be running this festival after 50+ years.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Not a person but a collection of people, the City of Houston. I’ve seen this city go through some major ups and downs over the years. The City of Houston has recovered from one catastrophic event after another during the last 5 years. And before Hurricane Harvey, not just floods and hurricanes but economic downturns as well. I believe our city’s resilience abides, because we have hope, community, persistence and a vision.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
When the festival was in Atlanta and my major sponsor filed for bankruptcy I was told by my attorneys that it was time to stop this and go back to just doing film production. I was filming corporate and documentary films to make my bread and butter while I explored creating a film festival. I resisted their instructions and continued. The festival has persevered through our efforts for 53 years.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
When the festival moved from the Virgin Islands to Houston in 1978, it was held in the month of November (we had been filling the shoulder season in the Islands during Autumn). I quickly realized the social season in Houston is filled with symphonies, ballets, operas, social events, parties and balls. So we move the festival to April and it has been a great success in that time slot ever since. April was basically a wide open month for the film festival. It’s right after the Oscars and right before Cannes, in a perfect slot.
I saw an article the other day that even spoke to Spring being festival season so maybe I started something. When I initiated WorldFest, we were number 3 in North America after San Francisco and the New York Fests. Now there are over 4,000 “so called” film festivals in North America. I say “so called” because many of them are not true International film festivals. They are what we call ‘screening events’. In other words, they rent some movies for a weekend and call it a French film festival, Charlie Chaplin film festival or a Latin film festival. WorldFest is International. We have hundreds of invited guests from all over the world — last year we represented 77 countries. We present Premieres of films which have been through the Official International Jury process. Our final Official Selections are exhibited in professional movie theatres and are all open to the public. Such is the standard definition per Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, the 3 oldest festivals to offer those elements to be a true film festival. Of the several 1000 ‘so called’ film festivals in North America, the great majority of them are ‘screening events’ and don’t measure up to the Cannes festival standard.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I have been a sailor all my life in small sailboats and there’s no better test of resilience than sailing. Capsizing, turning over or running aground and then getting back up and sailing again. I remember being a small boy at camp — my parents sailed their boat, Progress, out to Camp Okefenokee and I would sail my little boat out to meet them. Not really a story of resilience but I credit my resilience from learning to sail by adapting successfully to the wind, waves and tides.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
Five steps that have worked for me include having perspective, believing in my capabilities, utilizing a network of support, being willing to change and taking action to resolve issues.
Can you share a short story that relates to each point?
-Over the years of the festival we have recognized many different perspectives — Ang Lee’s and Spielberg’s of tomorrow. To evaluate the early perspectives of these emerging cinematic talents and shine a spotlight on them before they became giants of filmmaking in the future is an element of this festival which has become a longtime proven track record of “Discovery.”
I do believe that to trust in the perspective of paying attention to the potential of an emerging artist is so very important. Back in the early 90’s, our attorney neighbor down the hall was Texas Senator Jack Ogg. His young assistant was John Lee Hancock, who began to write short scripts and entered one into the festival and it won a WorldFest Remi award. The next year, John entered his short script as a short subject film and it also won. A couple of years later, John entered and won for a full-length feature, The Alamo. After his third win at WorldFest, John paid us a visit and announced that he was going to Hollywood and after his success for The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks & The Founder, John Lee Hancock credited Hunter Todd and his wins at WorldFest as a means of saving him from a life of having to sue people in court as a practicing attorney. Therefore, I do recognize that awarding this young man’s early talent at storytelling is a strong and significant element of this festival’s continued success. This pattern of watching filmmakers reach their full potential has happened many times over with other directors such as John Sayles, Randal Kleiser, Gavin Hood, Ethan Hawke and others.
– Our core festival team is 6 people and yet we have well over hundreds of people in our support network to ensure a great event. We do partner with a wide variety of professional teams such as our headquarter hotels, restaurants, theaters, hospitality operations, limousine services and of course, our amazing volunteers who all come together during the festival. So we actually have a support staff of well over a 100 people that make it happen not just the small core team. Building a community around your mission has been very important to the success of the festival. (1 festival 1 million details when it takes a village)
-WorldFest started in 1968 as a film festival and everything was 16 and 35 mm film. We had jury screening rooms piled with cans and cans of film (we even still have some screeners of films at the office). Over the last 53 years it’s emerged to become a digital event where the entire film festival of 200 movies could be put in a cigar box full of USB sticks. We still used 35mm until 2017. Now 95% of the jury work is done online which is a radical shift from just a few years ago when we had thousands of DVD’s and video tapes lined up in cases down the hall going off to the various Jury teams. Now we have beautiful clean halls.
-I always believe in approaching a problem with a good solid solution and most recently we realized that after five very successful years of panorama China (a focus on emerging Chinese cinema in partnership with their government) we were likely to run into difficulty due to the political fluctuations of our two nations so I decided to shift the focus from China to Asia. Now in view of our expanded horizons to spotlight also other nations such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, The Philippines, Indonesia and beyond, we will serve a true global perspective moving forward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think that would be a movement of self-belief and accomplishing something you previously had thought might not be possible. At WorldFest, we give each of our filmmakers who enter our festival every possible consideration to place for a deserving Remi award. If their project is “A good story, well told” we score/grade it fairly and award it if possible at the appropriate level to their finished production. They deserve it. To create a concept and bring that story full circle with their features and shorts is a huge accomplishment and we recognize that.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Philip Anschutz is a man of keen vision and ample resources and one who has followed his beliefs and instincts over the years to wonderful fruition. He is also a published author of 2 books about the history of the US West and the leaders who contributed to the early philanthropic patterns of our country. Anchutz had the brilliant foresight to buy the railway right-of-ways across North America and then along with a contract at AT&T to lay down a fiber optic nationwide link for AT&T and while the trenches were opened, Anchutz laid down his own bigger fiber optic network to connect his chain of theaters. This is a man of amazing vision and ability, persistence and may I also say, resilience.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’ve been dabbling with twitter. If our president can do it, so can I!
The festival is on all the regular socials.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!