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by Eric Kohn
July 30, 2012 9:41 AM
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More Important Than Cannes? Locarno Film Festival Is a Large Platform For Small American Movies

Bob Byington's "Somebody Up There Likes Me"

As the Locarno Film Festival heads into its 65th year, its European presence remains as pronounced as ever. But the upcoming edition, which runs August 1 - 12, also contains an unusually large number of features from the U.S.

Six American productions will screen in the international competition section. Three more have been programmed in the festival's famous Piazza Grande, which screens films outdoors each night to crowds that often swell to 8,000. Additionally, there are several more English-language films produced in the U.K., Canada and other countries, as well as American documentarian Jem Cohen's Vienna-set "Museum Hours."

According to Locarno artistic director Olivier Pére, who took over the festival three years ago after running the Directors' Fortnight sidebar in Cannes, the increased presence of American films -- as well as an increase in U.S. industry attendance -- did not coalesce by accident.

"It's intentional," Pére said. "For a few years, we've been following the new generation of young American filmmakers and we've made some interesting connections. It appears to represent the new wave of U.S. independent filmmakers."

Indeed, several of this year's features -- such as Sean Baker's "Starlet," Craig Zobel's "Compliance" and Bob Byington's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" -- played earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, which is often seen as a haven for low-budget American cinema. However, the same movies rarely find a welcome home overseas. Pére hopes to change that.

"American cinema isn't very well-known or appreciated in Europe by other festivals," he said. "For instance, in Cannes, you always have the most important American filmmakers, along with some studio films, but it's not very often that you discover a new and interesting American filmmaker. I think Locarno can be that place."

Dree Hemingway in Sean Baker's "Starlet."

Pére had already begun sifting through emerging American filmmakers during his time at Directors' Fortnight, when he programmed Josh Safdie's debut feature "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" as the only American film in the 2007 selection. Safdie served on the Locarno jury during Pére's inaugural year, and with his brother Benny will attend the 2012 edition to screen their 22-minute short film "The Black Balloon" on the Piazza.

This year, Pére has selected another young American filmmaker with a history at the festival for jury duty: Alex Ross Perry, the director of the indie sleeper hit "The Color Wheel" (which won Indiewire's Best Undistributed Film poll last year) will join the Filmmakers of the Present jury. After playing at a few U.S. festivals, "The Color Wheel" made its European premiere at Locarno last year, where it won acclaim from no less than Pedro Costa.

Perry said that the festival helped his movie find audiences by providing a fresh context. "It is really unlike any festival in American, and I am sure that includes the ones I haven't been invited to attend," he said. "I learned last year, starting at Locarno, that the status as 'the American movie' or 'an American movie' is going to sell more tickets and probably drum up slightly more interest in you than some of the European films. We are considered exotic to them."

The audience was highly receptive to the film, and the industry's presence made Perry's experience practical as well. "I met people at many European festivals who said they see every American film no matter what," he said. "They just like them more and get to see ones like mine far, far less often than the American blockbusters that reach foreign cinemas. I got an offer for French distribution at the end of our first screening, just from the head of the company walking up to me."


  • Neil Young | August 12, 2012 1:59 PMReply

    at the risk of blowing my own "trumpet", might I semi-humbly add Bradford (UK) to the list of festivals showcasing genuine independent US cinema?
    I've been programming a section specifically devoted to this area since 2007 - 'Uncharted States of America' - and in the six editions so far we have shown work by James Benning, Sharon Lockhart, John Gianvito, Matt Porterfield, Alex Ross Perry, Kentucker Audley, Travis Wilkerson, Mary Bronstein, Aaron Katz, Mike Ott, Betzy Bromberg, and many more, often as International Premieres.

  • Lisa Nesselson | August 1, 2012 9:08 AMReply

    Locarno has much to recommend it, but I'd like to mention two other festivals that have always taken pains to program "smaller" American films.
    The Viennale -- the Vienna International Film Festival (Oct 25 - Nov 7) -- provides a superb sampling of independent-minded American indie fare, year in and year out. The cinemas are wonderful and the staff strikes me at being expert at both programming and hospitality. (I suspect the above-mentioned Jem Cohen would echo my opinion.) The splendidly programmed Austrian Film Archive, also in Vienna, takes an abiding interest in creative Yanks spanning the full spectrum of film history. The Viennale celebrates its 50th edition this autumn.
    And, not to state the obvious, but there IS the Deauville Festival of American Film, in France, which will hold its 38th edition Aug 31st - Sept 8th. There are 14 titles in the American Indies competition this year. The doc programming tends to be top notch. And, the fest will open with the above-mentioned "The Bourne Legacy" -- (for what it's worth, all the Bourne films have made their French bow in Deauville.)
    American filmmakers in search of receptive audiences could do far worse than to land at either of these European events.

  • Casey Jones | July 31, 2012 8:31 PMReply

    i get the whole "these movies have trouble finding a home in europe" thing, but i feel like the tone of this is suggesting these are tiny movies with nothing behind them. only, the majority of these (if not all) had openings at Sundance and SXSW, two huge festivals. how much help do they really need? more power to locarno for stepping up their game, but this lineup is been there done that. i think these films are doing a.o.k.

  • Eric | August 1, 2012 2:12 AM

    You raise an interesting point, although the majority of U.S. films at the festival this year actually did not play at Sundance. A good amount did play at SXSW, but again, that audience is predominantly U.S.-based. Locarno provides an international platform.

  • diane | July 30, 2012 6:50 PMReply

    Yes. Because it brings substantial fresh talent. I hope that they keep this strategy for long... We know that success brings the need to comform.

  • eduardo | July 30, 2012 1:28 PMReply

    As an aspiring american film producer,who hopes to display in a festival, Locarno is a hope. Even festivals devoted to independents (Sundance?) are, for the most part, out of reach for independents.

  • Marian | July 30, 2012 3:49 PM

    Yes! I've become disappointed in Sundance as we've seen the growing presence of the 'Indies' with big money and known names. I can understand why they want to make more independent films rather than a lot of the "stuff" that comes out of Hollywood. But after seeing what does get funded, I feel for the unknowns who have to scape together every penny to make their film, if even able to do that, and then get it shown somewhere. Hooray for Locarno!!!!

  • Jake | July 30, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    Suggesting that Locarno is more important than Cannes (or Venice or Berlin or Toronto or Sundance or SXSW, for that matter) is a bullshit headline.

  • norbert | July 31, 2012 6:15 AM

    Jake: Read the article

  • Stewart | July 30, 2012 8:30 PM

    So please tell us why you think that, Jake.

  • Eric | July 30, 2012 1:03 PM

    The headline is longer and more specific than your dismissive comment implies.

  • jimbo | July 30, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    Really Eric? Perhaps Fortnight, and perhaps for American independents, but I'm not sure how you could posit that argument with any confidence for Official Selection.

    And I like Locarno a great deal and think it's made great strides under the current stewardship.

  • jimbo | August 5, 2012 12:54 PM

    i'd suggest retitling the title's intiial question. jake is right. stab at hits and comments.

  • Eric | July 30, 2012 1:02 PM

    You answered your own question. The point is that Locarno can be a serious boost for American independents, which are often marginalized at Cannes and other big festivals.