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Artistic director and Egyptian Theater-saving master leaving SIFF

Carl Spence, SIFF artistic director

Carl Spence, SIFF artistic director

During the past 23 years, Carl Spence has been instrumental in transforming the Seattle International Film Festival from an annual event to a year-round organization and saving the Uptown Theatre and Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theatre while he’s at it.

Six months from now Spence, who serves as SIFF’s artistic director, will be saying goodbye as he leaves for new adventures with his family and in his work life.

Spence was hired in 1994 on a three-month contract for the festival to do marketing work, which wasn’t what he wanted. He was interested in programming. But it was the organization he wanted to be with.

“It’s like the best place anyone could imagine to get a job,” he said.

Busy time for film festivals

  • Seattle’s gay film fest, Twist, just got started and continues through October 23rd at venues around the Hill and beyond.
  • The 11th annual Seattle South Asian Film Festival is also underway starting with Friday night’s opening gala. It runs through October 23rd with its “centerpiece gala” on October 20th at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

After the 20th anniversary festival that year, SIFF needed someone to stick around to do some of the interim work, so he did.

Eventually he wormed his way into programming and showed his chops by securing Braveheart for its 1995 premiere at that year’s festival.

In 2007 SIFF opened SIFF Film Center in McCaw Hall at Seattle Center. The decision to make that move kicked off SIFF’s transformation to a year-round organization.

In 2014 the chance to take buy the Uptown, now SIFF Cinema Uptown, and sign a long-term lease for the Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill popped up.

“For the festival, it’s very important to have a theater like that,” Spence said of the single-screen, 600-seat Egyptian, now known as SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

The Egyptian (Image: CHS)

The Egyptian (Image: CHS)

While SIFF updated much of the 1915-built theater, a lot if it has stayed the same, Spence said.

“The theater really is the heart of the building. It’s what really makes the building come alive,” he said.

SIFF originally renovated the theater in the 1980s when it was still a Masonic hall. Now they have eight years left on their lease for the space with owner Seattle Central College with the option to renew for another five.

“I think SIFF is there for the long term,” he said. “…It’s the best use for that space to continue as a cinema.”

Taking on the Uptown and the Egyptian took a lot of courage from the board and community, Spence said. Even with those additions to SIFF, the organization has been cash positive since 2012, he said.

The Egyptian, he feels is especially important for SIFF because Capitol Hill is its traditional and biggest audience. Now that the theater has been open for nearly two years, in order to be competitive, Spence said SIFF needs to invest in it.

“It’s a great theater, but it could be even greater,” he said, but that all comes down to finances.

One of the things Spence will miss the most about being the artistic director at SIFF, is curating the Secret Festival even though trying to select films for an audience who doesn’t know what will be showing, but thinks they might produces a high amount of anxiety.

Spence will be doing consulting work at SIFF and helping with his transition out of the organization for the next six months. Then Spence plans to take a break for the first time in 23 years and spend time with his husband and two young kids. He plans to continue his involvement with the Orcas Island Film Festival and is open to consulting work in the arts, film or music.

Festival goers can also expect to find Spence in the theater during the annual event as an audience member, a seat he hasn’t been in for 23 years.

He’s excited to see where SIFF, which is in the process of hiring a new executive director, goes after he leaves.

“The future is bright,” he said.

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