L.A. Film Fest Breaks Through June Gloom for Annual SoCal Showcase
by Brian Brooks
June gloom maintained its ubiquitous presence during the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival, at least in the final several days I attended. As a native to Southern California, I remembered the gnawing marine haze that hangs over L.A. during June, and this year was no exception. Still, the gray skies and somewhat chilly temperatures did not seem to dampen the festival's plethora of outdoor screenings and parties, not to mention its regular programming of films, and, perhaps best of all for filmmakers, the camaraderie encouraged by fest organizers. In fact, the Independent Feature Project, which finished its sophomore run as producers of the LAFF on June 21, has apparently made cohesion and support for directors a top priority.
"I really wanted to screen there," Alison Dickey commented during a conversation about LAFF. "It was my first choice, and I've been to lots of festivals with films." Dickey produced Alison Bagnall's "Piggie," starring Savannah Haske about a troubled woman living with her father on a farm, which screened to a sold-out audience at one of the Directors Guild of America's main theaters. This despite a competing Variety party taking place at the nearby Mondrian Hotel's uber-scenester Sky Bar. Dickey sited the festival's "Speed Dating" program as a big advantage for filmmakers. Organized by IFP, "speed dating" is a series of eight 15-minute chats with different industry insiders including financiers and agents to discuss various needs relating to their individual projects. LAFF has worked to maximize its SoCal location in recruiting industry to its speed dating series as well as the event in general.
In a conversation after the festival closed, LAFF director Richard Raddon emphasized that although LAFF's director of programming stresses quality, "it was nice that we had some films that were quality but also not seen yet by buyers." One film in particular, "The Mayor of Sunset Strip" by George Hickenlooper, had its world premiere at the fest, screening as the centerpiece. The documentary is a moving portrait of L.A. rock fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, who has arguably been one of the biggest influences on the American musical palate, breaking in acts from Bowie to punk to '80s alternative and many others via his club the English Disco in the '70s and his long-time current gig as the host of "Rodney on the ROQ" for L.A.'s behemoth alterna-rock station, KROQ. One striking thing about the doc is the parade of rock royalty singing the praises of Rodney and the film's numerous songs from an eclectic mix of artists including David Bowie, Blondie, Cher, Hole, and No Doubt, to name only a few.
"They all love Rodney," said Hickenlooper following a packed weekday afternoon screening of the film. Normally, securing such musical rights would be a massive nightmare at best, but Hickenlooper went on to say that Bingenheimer's cachet with the music crowd worked magic. "We're currently in discussion with distributors at the moment," Hickenlooper went on to say. The director, who won an Emmy in 1992 for "Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse" and had previous projects screen at the LA Film Fest, said he hopes the film will leave viewers questioning the role of celebrity in American culture, which he called "a culture in decline" due to the erosion of the family, among other reasons. "I hope it will establish Rodney as one of the top five important figures in American culture of the past 50 years."
Also garnering industry notice this year, according to Raddon, was Paxton Winters' "Crude," which took this year's coveted Target Filmmaker Award and its $50,000 cash prize. "'Crude' has solicited a lot of industry response to meet Paxton, and we're happy that LAFF can facilitate showcasing films to managers, agents and buyers." Continued interest by the industry is important, but public outreach is also a key to organizers. Raddon commented that the festival had added a theater at the Laemmle Sunset 5 at 8000 Sunset, a main center for the festival's screenings in addition to the Target room, which served as a meeting place for filmmakers, press, and others.
8000 Sunset was also the site for afternoon "porch parties" which had spectacular views of the Hollywood Hills on one side, and spectacular views of hottie celebs (and those who look like them) entering and leaving the Crunch gym on the other.
According to Raddon, this year's 11-day event had a preliminary figure of 33 percent higher ticket sales. He further commented, "We managed to make 8000 Sunset a public space, people really went to the Target room and people are excited that we're on to something in L.A. Things are taking hold." Raddon also touted the festival's mix of public and industry participants at regular screenings as a further LAFF plus.
Director Helen Stickler was pleased with her screening of "Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator," which was the film's Southern California premiere. "This was by far our most important premiere because so many of our cast was there, it was stressful," she commented. "We sold out 550 seats, and people were turned away, and cast members reacted positively. There was lots of great feedback from the audience, and people were moved by it." Stickler became drawn to the story of Mark "Gator" Rogowski, the subject of her doc, "because it was a big urban legend," and she decided to investigate the famed Southern California skateboarder, spending six years on the project and financing it herself from work wages. Like Hickenlooper, Stickler sites "celebrity" as a theme in her film calling it "ephemeral," and in the case of Gator, its "dark side." Palm Pictures is releasing the film in August in New York and Los Angeles.
Stickler also concurred with Dickey on LAFF's efforts to facilitate filmmaker camaraderie and project help as a plus. She did not, however, manage to attend the festival's filmmaker retreat prior to the event, which took place in the swank beach community of La Jolla north of San Diego. Writer-director Bradley Rust Gray, whose film "Salt" screened in the narrative competition, made the trek south of L.A. and spoke glowingly about the experience. "Usually there's a competitive atmosphere among filmmakers. But here, they're friends you've made, so it makes the festival pleasurable overall."
Gray also revealed that Chinese director Chen Kaige spoke during the retreat and mentioned that the visit was a big highlight. "He talked about 'Farewell My Concubine' and other films that didn't get as much acclaim and what he learned. Everyone had a chance to ask him questions that were specific to their stage of life in film." Gray, whose film is set in Iceland is about a girl living in a remote town who travels with her sister's boyfriend to visit her but discovers her sexual self, said the retreat fostered a bond with other filmmakers. "The first day, we were sitting with five other directors watching a film," she said. Among Gray's favorite LAFF offerings was the Armenian doc "Frescoes" by Alexander Gutman.
Stickler attended "Step Into Liquid" by Dana Brown and mentioned the screening as one of her faves of the fest. The surfing doc was one of LAFF's outdoor screenings. "The crowd was rambunctious and enthusiastic," she said. "There was a bar, and people were getting drunk and smoking pot. The screening was fun."
The closing night party for writer-director Todd Graff's "Camp" (which IFC Films will release later this summer) was perhaps somewhat more tame, but nevertheless notable. Isaac Mizrahi hosted the outdoor party, which seemed threatened as June gloom gave way to a very unusual rainstorm earlier that day, but later cleared in time. Luckily the bash, which had plush chairs and blankets spread over a grass lawn outside Westwood's Wadsworth Theatre, complete with a dazzling light scheme that looked a la Tavern on the Green, was a big hit, and a buoyant ending to a festival that is growing in confidence.