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Maui Film Festival Nears 15th Anniversary

Barry & Stella Rivers: an unlikely pair of impresarios.

December 12, 2013
Susan Halas - Contributing Writer ( , Maui Weekly

Maui Film Festival Co-director Stella Rivers is on her way out the door and her husband, Barry, is running just a little late. Waiting at the Rivers house in Pa'ia for him to arrive, the Maui Weekly reporter reads a sign on the refrigerator door that says, "Keep Calm and Carry On." The magnet holding it in place reads: "I'm difficult." Together they are not so much a contradiction as an unexpected combination.

When he does appear to discuss the history of the festival, Barry recalls the couple's arrival on Maui in 1979, "with three kids in diapers and $3,000 in cash. We wanted the weather and the ocean," he said.

More than 30 years later, they're still here, and their many creative projects (his, film and TV--hers, art and textile design) have merged and evolved into one of Maui's most popular ongoing events.

Article Photos

What Maui Film Festival Co-directors Barry and Stella Rivers started as a shoestring venture is now a full-scale business.
Photo: Randy Jay Braun

Barry and Stella make an unlikely pair of impresarios. As their long-running venture, the Maui Film Festival, nears its 15th anniversary, it's easy to see that what started as a shoestring venture is now a full-scale business, even though its origins might be, as Barry terms them, "accidental."

Rivers recalled one of the films he'd been associated with made it to Sundance. "I'd never been to a film festival before and I loved it," he said.

He was later invited to join the Sundance board and the seed was planted.

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It germinated in 1997 as the CandleLight Caf and Cinema at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center (The MACC) under the Maui Film Festival banner, a Wednesday night cinema series. That, in turn, morphed to the more ambitious festival-style presentations called FirstLight: Academy Screenings, which each year features the winter offerings at The MACC. The summer revolves around the Celestial Cinema--mainly at Wailea. Even though the two film series and their many related luminaries and special events are only on view for a few weeks, to bring them into being is "a circus all year-round."

The first festival at Wailea began in 2000. Barry recalls that what got them through was "sheer determination" and a lot of help from the Wailea resorts, especially Thomas Stein, former general manager of the Four Seasons. "For everything else, there's American Express."

He estimated attendance at the first Wailea outing was "maybe 5,000 over five nights. We had 60 films over several venues," he said. "It lost money."

"But," he said, "I'm stubborn --in the best possible way, of course." They didn't give up. Now, only a decade-and-a-half later, as many as 1,000 films from all over the world vie to be included in the Wailea event. Of the 50 films that will eventually screen there, about 35 will be "curated"--that is, invited to attend--and the remaining picked through a rigorous submission process.

So all these years later, how much is it all worth as a business? Well, the short answer is, it's difficult to put a dollar value on it.

Taken in hard numbers, Rivers estimates that though he and Stella are the only full-time staff for the festival, there are about 75 local companies employed in various capacities to keep the summer and winter editions running, not to mention countless sponsors and hundreds of dedicated volunteers.

In cold hard cash, those numbers might be just shy of $2 million, but if you count the value of visitor spending, the figure rises closer to $6 million. Add in the value of the media and attention it generates for Maui, and that total might bump up to as much as $14 million.

"Let's just say we're holding our own," said Barry, "and that every year we're a little more noticed."

Like many local business ventures, the festival found the years following the 2008 economic downturn difficult, to say the least.

"Just when they were in the catch-fire zone," the whole economy tanked. This was particularly true of sponsorships, which are now slowly coming back.

Sponsorship opportunities are available and in amounts that range from a modest $2,500 to a more substantial $250,000. He urged those who might want to consider supporting the festival to email to learn more about what is offered.

As for his own role, Rivers acknowledges that he's the front person: "They see me," he said, "but it takes a whole lot of people to make it happen, including the workers, the contractors, the sponsors and volunteers already mentioned, as well as support from the state, the Hawai'i Tourism Authority and the County of Maui.

"Be sure to mention we genuinely value the support we get from the community," he said.

The next FirstLight is set to begin on Wednesday, Dec. 18. Find details and this year's schedule at

Planning is already underway for next year's festival at Wailea from June 4 to 8.



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