In 1994, the St. Petersburg Times decided to add a movie critic to a new, then-hip page dedicated to all things teenage. We couldn't have hired a less hip kid.
Plant High School's Scott Foundas was 15, kind of scrawny with an awkward nasal tenor to his voice. Talking about dating made him blush. Like many kids of his age, Foundas thought he knew it all. He didn't, but he was more knowledgeable about some movies than much older critics in the screenings loop, including me.
It was always a bit irritating to hear Foundas defend the psychosexual tenor of a Polanski flick and toss out his impressions of obscure works. Then I'd read his reviews of the same films I'd seen and hope he'd choose another profession.
Foundas, now 32, didn't, and the vast, varied world of cinema is a better place for it.
Not only has he been a highly respected film critic-editor for Variety, the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly, but he is a frequent moderator, juror and reporter at festivals from Sundance to Cannes.
I watched him at Telluride interviewing Sean Penn about Into the Wild and smiled like a proud uncle. Later, he introduced me as the guy who gave him his start. "Yes," I said, "but the student has become the teacher."
For the past 15 months, Foundas has lived mainly in New York and worked as associate program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He helps arrange a 363-day schedule of cinema events, including the New York Film Festival, conducting many of the society's Q&A sessions with international filmmakers.
It's something like the sidebar Foundas organized for this year's Florida Film Festival (floridafilmfestival.com), a trio of offbeat, nearly forgotten movies with Sunshine State themes. In his words and actions, Foundas seldom misses an opportunity to steer viewers toward the unique. The 10-day Florida Film Festival starts Friday in Orlando.
"Those are the films that need the most support if anyone is going to notice them," Foundas said recently, sipping a drink at a Los Angeles Starbucks.
"When you're confronted with a film that's from a foreign country, or has a director nobody ever heard of, or it's challenging in some other respect, you beat the drum extra loudly to explain why people should be interested."
Foundas was interested early, spending weekends with his father in theaters. He doesn't recall any movie that made the difference, only the dimming lights and curtains opening. "I was really seduced by that," he said. The Christmas gift of a bulky, top-loading VHS player when Foundas was 7 became his gateway to cinematic history.
The Times gig started Foundas writing about films, and early graduation with honors from Plant High took him to the University of Southern California's vaunted film and television program. Foundas started reviewing films for the campus newspaper, then became its film editor, but he was studying to work in film production. A daily routine of reading Variety led him in a new direction.
"There was a story basically talking about the waning influence of film critics," Foundas said. "Fifteen years ago, they were writing that. I was so outraged because it was filled with factual errors, very important critics who weren't even mentioned.
"I wrote a letter to the editor, which (Variety) printed. (Editor) Todd McCarthy called me up and said he wanted to try me out with a few reviews on spec. I ended up writing there (as a freelancer) for the better part of the decade."
Throughout his career, Foundas made connections that continue to pay off — publicists willing to grant extended interviews with clients, distributors giving him the inside track on sleepers, filmmakers respecting his opinions and writing style.
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin was one of Foundas' first interviews at USC, and later his guest onstage at a Lincoln Center screening of The French Connection. Filmmaker Kevin Smith had Foundas barred from a screening of Clerks II but later admitted misunderstanding a line the critic wrote. When a tribute to The Breakfast Club with the original cast was organized last year, Smith was the moderator Foundas selected.
Richer than usual for an artist and critic is Foundas' relationship with Clint Eastwood, stretching back to a 2004 interview for Million Dollar Baby. Since then, the normally reticent Eastwood allowed Foundas an on-set report from Changeling and several other interviews. Foundas was the only journalist Eastwood allowed on his South African sets for Invictus, turning in a rare start-to-finish report on production.
Last year's New York Film Festival closed with Eastwood's Hereafter, a mutual favor among fellows with movies in mind. Foundas' mother visited and was nonplussed when Eastwood gave a chummy squeeze to her son's shoulders. "My relationship with Eastwood is something special," Foundas said, "and it couldn't have happened without everything before it."
It's a joke among film journalists that the last question in an interview shouldn't be: "What's your next project?" Naturally, that's how our conversation needed to end.
"I'm in the middle of something new right now," Foundas said. "What I'd love to do — that people think I've done and I haven't — is (just write) about movies. . . . The idea of being able to just see movies and write about them has always been this mirage just out of reach.
"But I enjoy what I'm doing now. The new-car smell hasn't come close to wearing off yet."
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.