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The Los Angeles Film Festival Embraces Its City and Finds a Niche

Will the LAFF's diversity mission yield buzz and audiences?

The transition of Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival continues. Geographically, the fest has moved away from downtown to multiple Arclight locations. Opening night in Hollywood, Ricardo de Montreuil’s coming-of-age East L.A. drama “Lowriders,” starring Demián Bichir and Theo Rossi as father and estranged ex-con son, signaled the fest’s mission: Provide a diverse program directed by rising filmmakers: among the 42 competition films, 87% are first-and-second-timers, 43% are women and 38% are people of color, while 90% of the 58 total festival films are world premieres.

Developed by Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer, “Lowriders” (written by Cheo Hodari Coker, Joshua Beirne-Golden, Elgin James, and Justin Tipping), finally got made when the budget dropped—under Universal’s low-budget producing partner,  Jason Blum—from $20 million to $5 million. The grittiness helps the scruffy, colorful movie, which LAFF head Stephanie Allain loved for being “so Los Angeles, so culturally rich,” she told the Arclight crowd. “Made by filmmakers of color, ‘Lowriders’ embodies our mission.” (The film will go out under a Universal label that remains to be seen, per Blum.)

Since Allain took over in 2014, the festival has lost some of its key programming talent (David Ansen, Doug Jones, Maggie McKay); the sprawling program is now commandeered by film professor Roya Rastegar (Bryn Mawr College). Very much in charge is LAFF’s high-powered director, studio-trained producer Allain (“Boyz ‘n the Hood,” “Hustle & Flow”), who has pulled her friend Elvis Mitchell into a role as year-round “curator,” which basically means hosting Q & As at Film Independent-programmed events at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

As LAFF becomes more local, eclectic, multi-cultural, and interactive, the LAFF seeks to occupy a niche and grow its audience via a more populist, less international festival.

Truth is, only a few top-ranked film festivals a year are must-attend destinations packed with high-end world premieres and star attendees. Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Venice, New York, and Telluride top the list. So there’s some logic to opting out of that competitive arena. Increasingly, fests like Tribeca and SXSW are pushing outside the area of indie film to create alluring events for audiences, from interactive transmedia showcases and TV series premieres to high-profile panels, Q & As, and “Master Classes.” So it makes sense to brand LAFF with an identifiable niche.

Giving people awards and tributes is another route pursued by awards-friendly fests like Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, hence Saturday LAFF will award “Selma” director Ava DuVernay as well as her distribution company Array Releasing (her own “Middle of Nowhere” plus “Ashes and Embers,” “Mississippi Damned,” “Kinyarwanda,” and “Restless City”) with the annual Spirit of Independence Award given to members of the independent film community who “advance the cause of independent film and champion creative freedom.” Last year, Array bought LA Film Festival US Fiction award-winner “Out of My Hand” for distribution, along with “Ayanda.”

Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) is the 2016 Festival’s Guest Director; he’s offering a master class on sound design for “Creed.” And Nate Parker hosted a screening of Sundance Oscar contender “Birth of a Nation.” This weekend also brings a panel of women cinematographers.

The question is whether Allain’s quest for diversity will coincide with choosing the best movies, ones that create buzz for must-see titles—so far, actress Amber Tamblyn’s directing debut, “Paint It Black,” debuting Friday night at LACMA, has earned the most advance word of mouth. Established fest circuit titles such as Roger Ross Williams’ autism doc “Life, Animated,” closing night border film “Desierto” from Jonás Cuarón (“Gravity”), starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Mike Birbliglia and Ira Glass’s latest collaboration, improv comedy “Don’t Think Twice,” starring Keegan-Michael Key, are all worth seeing.

But for many of the unknown titles unspooling this week, audiences and buyers will just have to check them out and spread the word, good or bad. Otherwise, they’ll disappear into the ether.

Here are Indiewire’s LAFF picks so far.

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