When the seventh annual Plaza Classic Film Festival opens this Wednesday with a special showing of “Field of Dreams” at Southwest University Park, that evening will mark the realization of several dreams.
The builders of the ballpark – who proved that if you build it, they will come – will get to welcome families to a whole new kind of baseball entertainment. Charles Horak, co-founder of what has become the world’s largest classic film festival, will get to do what he only once dreamed of doing – just sit down and enjoy as many movies as he wants without the mantel of responsibilities.
And Doug Pullen, the festival’s new program director, will get to see the fruition of his work over the last year: the presentation of 90 films, 15 special guest speakers and a variety of special events. It’s been a dream deferred during months of hard work and a steep learning curve, but the wait will be worth it for the former newspaper writer-turned-festival organizer.
We think we know Doug Pullen, entertainment reporter for the El Paso Times from April 2008 to November 2013. For five and a half years, he’s been part of breakfast rituals with his previews, reviews and thoughts on El Paso’s state of the arts. We came to know of his passions, from music to blogging. We even learned about the previous gigs in Michigan and the devotion to family that brought him back to his hometown in 2008.
However, this season brings us a chance to get to know Doug Pullen in a different way. Now the veteran interviewer finds himself on the other side of the digital recorder and notebook. Instead of asking questions, he’s answering them – a situation that he confesses he finds “weird.”
So what’s Doug’s story? He may have grown up in El Paso, but he was actually born in Limestone, Maine, near Loring Air Force Base, where his father served until he was transferred to Biggs Airfield in 1959. Pullen attended Eastwood High School, where he wrote for the school newspaper, and graduated with a journalism degree from Texas Tech in 1979, where he also wrote for the school newspaper.
Pullen worked on the college paper all four years, eventually becoming the University Daily’s entertainment editor his senior year. In addition, he wrote a weekly music column for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal for three of those years. While he was in college, he freelanced and interned for the El Paso Times. From 1981 to 1983, he worked for the El Paso Herald-Post as an entertainment writer
In 1983 his career took him to Michigan, where he covered art and entertainment for the Kalamazoo Gazette, which included writing film reviews: he estimates that he would see between 200 and 250 movies a year. In 1990, he become the Flint Journal’s music critic, the plum position he had been waiting for. He covered the Detroit market and had many stories either syndicated nationally on the Newhouse News Service or picked up by eight other Michigan papers via the Booth News Service.
After his father died at the age of 85 in 2006, Pullen began pondering a move back home to El Paso to spend time with his mother and other family members. It was a hard decision because he loved what he was doing in Flint, but he says, “it was the right thing to do – my dad would have wanted it.” Fortuitously a generous buyout offer to Flint Journal employees at the time helped him decide.
So in 2008, he and his son traded a sub-zero Michigan winter for a balmy 40 degrees in West Texas. Pullen’s mother couldn’t understand how they were wearing shorts in January! He came back with no prospects lined up, and says that, at the age of 50, he had no expectations of getting a newspaper job. However, the Times hired him that April.
Much had changed in his hometown in the 25 years that he was gone, including the addition of a new film festival that year. When Pullen surveyed the area’s entertainment options, he knew that this new classic film series at the newly renovated Plaza Theatre would certainly be one of the community’s major highlights to cover. And it still is.
Q: After being a journalist for 40 years, how did you get to be a film festival program director?
I had covered the festival since the first year and I could see that as the festival got bigger, people were getting stretched thinner. For instance, Eric (Pearson, co-founder of the festival) had moved up from vice president to president of the El Paso Community Foundation. I was walking with Chuck (Horak, the other co-founder) one day during the festival and I made a joke. I said, “You guys just need to hire me.” It wasn’t anything I’d thought about it or planned. And he said something like, “Yeah, we should.”
I thought about it later and we talked off and on about it, infrequently, for two years, but it wasn’t ever anything serious. For me, it was probably more like, “wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Chuck had been running the festival as a volunteer, which is not a word that does justice to his work. I didn’t realize until last summer that they were looking at a way to create a position that could be involved in the everyday planning and execution of the festival, among other events for the Community Foundation. Eric said they were thinking about it and that he’d like me to apply. Then last fall, he called and said they were setting up interviews with candidates.
When they offered me the job, I asked for 24 hours to think about it. I did have a job, but the thought of being a one-man arts and entertainment staff indefinitely was not as intriguing as the thought of taking on something like this. I ran it by my “inner circle” and they said, “Why not?”
Q: Did you go through some kind of on-the-job training with Charles Horak?
Chuck has basically been an advisor to me. Over the six years that I covered the festival, Chuck and I had a good give and take – I not only turned to him for comment on various stories, but we got to know each other a little bit. We would have breakfast periodically and I was always asking him questions. Normal journalism stuff.
So when this came along, he told me prior to the interview that he was going to step back a little. He has his kids, who are growing up. Chuck is in Africa right now, on a church-related mission, which may also be part of the appeal of stepping back.
Chuck has been available to me all through this; he gets numerous emails from me, some phone calls, some text messages. He just points me in the right direction. Coming from the Community Foundation – and this obviously is a major event for the foundation – Eric has been guiding me on a variety of things, including programming, but also things that are more operational and fundraising, how to represent the organization.
Q: What do you miss about the paper?
Nothing. It’s no reflection on the paper; it’s a reflection on the fact that I am totally caught up in what I’m doing. If you know anything about me, you’d know I can get very immersed in something. When I was at the Times and the other papers before, I was immersed in that.
Probably the biggest surprise is how little interest I have in music right now. My interest in music has been there for a long time. When you go back, I wrote about music for 40 years, from age 16 to 56 – and started getting paid for it when I was 18. Maybe having three older brothers had something to do with it – I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Stones during the British invasion.
Q: What’s the cycle of planning for the festival?
Chuck has walked me through what he does throughout the year to prepare and Eric has walked me through what he does, but my work is probably going to be a hybrid of the two. When I started in November, I was already a couple months behind.
One of the first steps they would take is to go to Los Angeles by October and meet with the different distributors and tell them how their movies went at the last festival and start planning for next year. Chuck would go back two or three times. The second or third year, they started the collaboration with the art museum, so Chuck was curating art exhibits. He would start piecing together and honing in on what he was envisioning and working with people at the Academy and Paramount.
The selection of movies for this year’s festival started before I walked in the door. Chuck and I went to LA in November and I met some of his key contacts and distributors.
Eric created an advisory committee and we meet every other week and talk about movies, guests and other areas. Between what those people brought up and I had thought of and Chuck’s ideas and suggestions coming from the Facebook page, I had a list of about 600 movies by December.
Then I compiled a list of movies shown in the previous festivals and that was about 400 titles. We eventually narrowed it down to a list of about 80 and began booking.
Q: What criteria did you have when you set out to select the movies?
One was to keep it about 60 percent of movies filmed in the ‘60s or earlier. And I probably have a little bit more liberal view of what a classic is than what a scholar might.
Q: What is a classic?
Different people have different views. My bottom line is something that has stood the test of time. It’s sort of in the eye of the beholder – but there are a lot of beholders and we’re trying to appeal to all of them.
Q: When did you first become really interested in movies?
I’ve liked movies since I was a little kid. When I was in college, the guy who was the entertainment editor at the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Bill Kerns, was really a movie guy. I did some stories for the paper – he liked my writing and took me under his wing.
We would go to movies and he showed me how to watch them. He got me to watch for camera angles, editing and to pay attention to dialogue.
Don’t just “surface react” to a movie – read it. I was like anyone else, I went to the movies and reacted, I didn’t think much of it. That experience changed the way I look at movies.