Queens Film Fest founder accused of running scam

Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image is one of the alleged victims of Queens International Film Festival founder Marie Castaldo, who has been accused of not paying workers at the festival.
By Nathan Duke

Several individuals and institutions involved in the distribution and screening of films have accused Queens International Film Festival founder and Executive Director Marie Castaldo of duping them out of thousands of dollars during the past several years.

The alleged victims hail everywhere from Queens to Brooklyn and Connecticut to Texas.Several elected officials from Queens have called for an investigation into Castaldo’s business ventures.

QIFF screened movies from Nov. 12 to Nov. 15 at several borough sites this year, including Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, as part of its seventh-annual celebration. In the weeks since the festival, a number of past QIFF participants have accused Castaldo of not paying thousands of dollars she owed them for their services.

“It’s a master’s tale of deceit,” said Dan Nuxoll, program director of Brooklyn’s Rooftop Films, a nonprofit film festival that has screened independent films outdoors since 1997 as well as renting out projectors, screens and audio equipment to other festivals. “She looked legitimate and said she would pay us half opening night and half closing night. She stalled and said she’d give us the check the next day after opening night. Then she disappeared closing night and had her Web site disconnected.”

Efforts to find Castaldo were unsuccessful. QIFF’s phone number is still in service, but the answering machine with her voice on it said the mailbox was full and could not receive messages.

Nuxoll said his company rented Castaldo equipment for the 2007 festival and that she never paid him the $2,750 she owed him.

“We tracked her down working at a Chelsea hotel, where she told me she’d had a nervous breakdown because her father had died,” he said.

Nuxoll said Castaldo gave him a new phone number, but it was also disconnected. In 2008, he received an e-mail which invited him to the opening night of that year’s festival.

He alleges that Castaldo threatened him when he called her last year.

“She said if I showed up, there would be men who would make me sorry,” he said. “She threatened to sue me for $2 million for libel and, of course, none of that happened. She called me the next morning to apologize and said she’d pay me off. Then her mailbox was disconnected a few days later.”

Shortly after the 2008 festival, Nuxoll received a phone call from James Hill, a Connecticut resident who had worked as a projectionist that year for Castaldo.

“They breached their contract,” said Hill, who alleges that Castaldo agreed to pay him $250 per day as well as pick up his meals and parking. “But I never bothered with Small Claims Court because I found out she has a long list of people she hasn’t paid. I figured she’d never show at court. This is what she counts on.”

Hill said he warned Castaldo that he would go to the press and said her ex-husband, Richard Castellano, called him.

“He made veiled threats,” Hill said. “He tells me, ‘I know you’re a smart guy and you’ll understand what I’m telling you between the lines: You won’t talk to anybody.’”

A 2000 article in the Sullivan County Democrat detailed Castellano’s involvement in a Narrowsburg, N.Y., film festival during which he and his wife, Jocelyne Castellano, allegedly failed to pay festival workers. In 2001, Richard Castellano was sentenced to a year in jail for scamming people out of money by promising to get them Screen Actors Guild cards, the newspaper said.

Nuxoll said he had found that Jocelyne Castellano was one of Castaldo’s many aliases through his own research. He said he does not know her real identity.

City Councilmen Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) have both called for Castaldo to be investigated.

But a spokeswoman for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said Castaldo was not facing any criminal charges at this time.

“We’ve gotten complaints from various people about her,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image said the institution was among those allegedly scammed by Castaldo.

“They wrote us a check for $2,920, but that check bounced,” the spokeswoman said. “They haven’t paid us anything.”

The museum screened films for the festival in 2007. The spokeswoman said Castaldo still owed them $3,600.

Kerry Wallum, who owns a small Austin, Texas-based film company, had arranged a tribute to musician Levon Helm at this year’s festival that was to be presented by Kris Kristofferson.

But both musicians dropped out of the festival at the last minute after Castaldo’s alleged past victims told them they would probably not be paid to attend the event. Kristofferson ended up presenting the lifetime achievement award to Helm during a Woodstock concert last month.

Wallum said he was forced to pay several bands that had flown out to perform at QIFF. He said Castaldo owes him $16,000.

“I want this lady behind bars,” he said. “My Christmas is ruined. I had to pay for everything because my word was involved.”

Nuxoll said he, Hill and several other alleged victims of Castaldo have tracked down as many as 100 people who have not been paid by the QIFF founder for their services from various festivals over a period of years.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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