Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Thom Cardwell | Development Director, Philadelphia Cinema Alliance

Interview :: Thom Cardwell
by Juanita Berge, 1 Jun 2009

Thom Cardwell wears many hats in the City of Philadelphia. By day, he serves as the Development Director for the newly-formed, Philadelphia Cinema Alliance, the producers, along with TLA Entertainment Group, of the Philadelphia CineFest in April and the Philadelphia Qfest in July. By night, he's a working journalist for more than 25 years, writing almost daily, about food, travel, fashion and arts and entertainment, for a wide range of media outlets. He serves on several nonprofit boards and committees.


PCG: Would you tell us the organizations you have been affiliated with here in Philadelphia?

TC: Well, I'll list mostly the current ones. I'm the president of the Greater Philadelphia Professional Network (GPPN), an all-volunteer gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender business and professional group that has met monthly for the past 15 years; I am a founding board member of the Philadelphia Gay Travel Caucus, under the auspices of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation (GPTMC), they're the group that launched the award-winning campaign, "Get Your History Straight/And Your Nightlife Gay"; I serve on the advisory board of the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund (DVLF) for the LGBT community under the umbrella of the Philadelphia Foundation; I serve on many nonprofit host committees, but especially, each year, the Indigo Ball for the William Way Community Center and the Gala Committee for the University of the Arts', and I'm a founding board member emeritus of Gay And Lesbian Arts (GALA). I'm excited to be serving on the organizing committee for Innovation Philadelphia for their second annual conference in October 2009. I've received the City of Hope Ambassador Award in 2008, a GPPN Pride in the Community Unsung Hero Award in 2008 and an Honorary Doctorate of the Fine Arts in 2005 from the University of the Arts. These days I'm editor at large and co-publisher, with James Duggan, of Qt: QUEERtimes, our own weekly e-newsletter. I'll be returning to my columns of films, celebrities and film festivals at www.notesfromhollywood.com.

PCG: You've been called a true Philadelphia humanitarian, been described as a Renaissance man, and viewed almost as a Philadelphia institution. What has been your driving force, your singular intention here in the city?


TC: Well, thanks for all the accolades. I have to say that my personal 'driving force" for life has to do with all the friends, boyfriends, acquaintances, artists, writers, designers, filmmakers and, beyond that, husbands and lovers, lost to HIV/AIDS at earlier periods of the pandemic. I've literally a pile of address books with people who were lost to the disease. I never discarded them, it's my way of remembering them all.

Sadly, I told a close friend of mine just this week that I could cover walls, a rogue's gallery of men, who I lost in my life, most of them didn't live to be 30, 40 or 50. This fact drives me, forces me to do more, to not stop. Did I tell you my favorite line, what film is it from? "Life is not a dress rehearsal." I have inside me a zest for life like the character in the novel and film, Zorba the Greek!

This type of energy, spirit, mind and heart drives my soul. As far as Philadelphia, where so much has happened as a nation, I want to leave my mark, a legacy, a contribution, however big or small. I know that this may sound silly or superfluous but what else do we have but what our forbearers, our forefathers, all those who have gone before us, have bequeathed us?

Thom Cardwell with Connie Stevens

PCG: Who have been your mentors?

TC: Oddly enough, I've never really thought of mentors but we all must have them, perhaps not mentors so much as role models or individuals who can inspire us. Historic figures would include Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin. Contemporary figures would include John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, as a college student I got to meet all three of them. Then there are people like Dag Hammarskjold of the United Nations, Nancy Cunard, Sara and Gerald Murphy, who F. Scott Fitzgerald based Dick and Daisy Diver on in The Great Gatsby. I adore their biography, "Living Well is the Best Revenge." Artistic figures make for a rather strange list--Lincoln Kirsten, Ned Rorem, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Cole Porter. Did I tell you about my fascination with Count Dracula and Vampires? I once taught a course in vampire literature, incorporating films, from Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau to The Fearless Vampire Killers by Roman Polanski. At the end of the course, we all ended up following Vlad the Impaler's trails through Romania and Transylvania. Well, that was one of the many chapters in my book of life. I'm still writing more.


PCG: You now serve as the Development Director of the newly formed Philadelphia Cinema Alliance. What does this change mean to Philly film buffs?

TC: Quite, frankly, absolutely nothing to the general public. I've been previously serving as the development director for the other nonprofit. I've had several different positions with the producers of the city's major film festivals since 2000! What's in a title? My name is my title after having been involved in producing 25 film festivals in Philadelphia. On the other hand, all of our supporters, those Philly film buffs, as you call them, need to become members of the Philadelphia Cinema Alliance, so that we can move forward with bigger, better and more film screenings, festivals and special film-related events! Really now, for Philly film buffs, the transition has been seamless.


PCG: How has this year's Festival shaped up? In what ways was it different?

TC: The team producing CineFest 2009 was made up of experienced, dedicated and passionate programmers, artistic director, managing director, guest services coordinator, and others who have a longtime history of pride in what they offer film audiences in the city of Philadelphia and region. They have a reputation to maintain and a track record to deliver an impressive lineup of films from around the corner and across the world despite any outside challenges or obstacles. It was different in some of the areas of programming that proved to be quite successful—Fade to Black, honoring African-American filmmaking, French Reconnection, focusing upon the resurgence of French Cinema as an international force, Festival of Independents, truly celebrating local filmmakers in an ever-growing and nurturing environment. It's really all about the quality of the films presented that make a festival great! We did that!


PCG: You've got a new website now. It's been long in coming I understand.

TC: We were streamlining our newly formed nonprofit for year-round membership, both film festivals, Philadelphia CineFest in April and Philadelphia Qfest in July, the French Film Series that will begin monthly in September, and other special film screenings and film-related programs. So we wanted people to be impressed and become eager to join The Alliance. Our web site is www.phillycinema.org


PCG: Are the needs of the two festivals (Cinefest and Qfest) similar, or are you producing two separate entities each and every year?

TC: Well, the two film festivals have very similar needs—grants, corporate sponsors, theater venues, film programming and premieres, celebrity guests, filmmakers, panels, parties and events, and a loyal and supportive audience. The major difference between the two festivals is that CineFest is mainstream, for all types of consumers of films, while Qfest is a niche market comprised primarily of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer audiences. Though there's more crossover appeal by younger people these days.

PCG: What do you wish the festivals had that they don't have now?

TC: In a word, MORE money! Without a doubt, we could produce greater film festivals with stronger financial support from all levels. Now I'm REALLY sounding like the development director but it's true. There are many enhancements to the festivals that we have to give up doing because of budgets and lack of funding. So, show us the money!

"film is the medium or art form, whichever you prefer, that brings together any and all of these other artistic expressions."

PCG: Is film your first love?

TC: In the realm of the arts, film ranks high on the list. Though I formally studied film history and genre films on the graduate school level with only a handful of courses, my first serious pursuit was always literature. That's what all my college and graduate studies focused upon in degree programs. After college, I went to Fordham University and the New School in New York City. I chose to be there on purpose. I knew that I would encounter incredible people in that town and have a wonderful life as a young gay man. I was right and I did. And film was central to that experience. I saw everything. I recall seeing Andy Warhol's Empire to The World of Apu by Satyayit Ray. (Because of his films, I ended up studying Indian culture for a time and visited India twice in my life.) I followed all the major critics--Pauline Kael, Rex Reed, Stanley Kauffman, Vincent Canby. Each week I'd rush off to see the latest films by Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, among others.

There were really so many art film houses uptown, downtown, East Side, West Side, that you could read about a film in a magazine article or a book and, Viola! It would be showing somewhere in Manhattan! The people who inhabited these art houses, many of them were characters in themselves! Back at school, I was also taking some film history courses and the director's medium so that concept was drilled into my head by my professors. It was only later that I broadened my horizons by studying art history, architecture, music, philosophy and writing during my years as a prof in private boarding schools.

As one of my lifetime friends calls it, "my charmed life" allowed me to study abroad in the summers in Greece, Scotland, Italy and Australia. I also developed a love of photography as an art form. I've always been a fashion freak, so design for the body and the home were among my other passions. And having gone to school in New England--in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire--I gained a natural appreciation of history and antiques. Nowadays, film is the medium or art form, whichever you prefer, that brings together any and all of these other artistic expressions. It really has no boundaries and it can satisfy almost any and every craving. It definitely does that for me!


PCG: What are your favorite films?

TC: You're kidding! Right? Do you want me to list my 100 favorite films—of all time or right now? I've been obsessed, even haunted, by films at times. I used to go wild about Alfred Hitchcock classics, still do. At other times, I couldn't get enough of Citizen Kane, Manchurian Candidate, Midnight Cowboy, Dr. Strangelove, Marx Brothers movies, to name a few. I've become fixated on the BBC production of Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" and have seen it seven times. I'm afraid that I'm revealing too much about myself.


PCG: What is BUCKmonkey?

TC: Our company, BUCKmonkey LLC, (it's a combination of the names of our pets, Buck is James Duggan's, my business partner's, dog and Monkey is the name of my cat). Our company is a "pet project." We're a branding, marketing, public relations and events business. We're actually planning to launch some of our own special events in the city in collaboration with some other agencies and companies. Our first corporate client was SCION/Toyota and we'll be working soon with The Legal Intelligencer on some new events. We're resurrecting Thom's Table, a series of food events with chefs and restaurants that have a different twist to the usual wine pairings and chef's tastings. We're going to host a series of brunches on Saturdays and Sundays. We're launching a monthly "Networking on the Qt," and inviting LGBT people and their friends to get together to exchange ideas as well as pursue business.


PCG: How did one of your latest ventures, Thom's Guides in the Legal Intelligencer, come about?

TC: It's still in its formative stages but I was approached by long time friends and business associates who I worked with at other media outlets. They've now moved on to The Legal Intelligencer. The publication discovered in their readers' surveys that lawyers wanted some features on food, dining out, chefs, fashion, arts and entertainment, travel and events. I've written in all those areas over the years so I was a natural fit for what the five-day-a-week newspaper needed. I'm looking forward to a long term and expansive relationship with the media outlet. In fact, we're now talking about developing and co-producing events for the law community in the greater Philadelphia area. That should be fun. You know my latest mantra is "Lawyers are us!"


PCG: Are there any new projects in the pipeline for you?

TC: Absolutely, you have to keep in constant motion. That's what the creative process is all about. I write every single day--whatever it is, a column, an article, a poem, a page of a book, dialogue for a screenplay. I am constantly filling up blank pages (nowadays blank computer screens) with words, ideas, images. Every single day. I've been reading a lot about the literary genius John Updike and admire his work ethic as a writer, he was so disciplined about his daily writing schedule. Mine is less structured, more chaotic, I write sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening. Really, almost any time that I'm moved to express something. I've just finished writing my first screenplay with my writing partner for films. It's a gay romantic comedy with a different contemporary twist that will be shot on location around Philadelphia next year. We're raising the money right now. I really can't say too much more about the film. We want to milk the media, announcing bits and pieces of the project, spoon feeding them about the director and cast that will include some familiar names from television, movies and the music industry. It's really all very exciting. Sometimes I really believe that I'm living in a dream!

Secretly, I've been writing some poetry again. I try to read a few poems a day by important poets from the past and the present. Our society has lost so much in terms of the appreciation of the written word. We don't have any philosopher-kings or poetic voices that lead our nation. We've got lots of poets but they seem sequestered within the walls of academia or the rarefied literary world. I've had a few poems published in magazines a long time ago but I'm back to that economy of words and images that poetry demands. I guess that you could call me a "closeted poet".

I'm working on a memoir, called "Bittersweet," about the loss of my lover to AIDS in 1992, that I hope eventually to turn into a screenplay and film about that period of my life in Los Angeles. I think that writing about one's own life is one of the hardest challenges that a writer can face. I know that it might sound egotistical, even narcissistic, but, trust me, it's anything but that. It's an inner journey, trying to discover, understand and unearth oneself.

The simple axiom, "Know Thyself" from the ancient Greeks is everything and difficult.

And, I continue to collect materials for research on the shopaholic side of my personality for "Palaces of Consumerism: The History of the Department Store in America."

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