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More Important Than Cannes? Locarno Film Festival Is a Large Platform For Small American Movies

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 30, 2012 at 9:41AM

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.
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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."

Perry's return to Locano not only speaks to its welcoming environment but the community of filmmakers that the festival continues to focus on. Perry has a fleeting cameo in "Somebody Up There Likes Me," and the movie's director, Bob Byington, had a brief scene-stealing role in "The Color Wheel."

Pére said bringing both filmmakers this year was also a conscious decision. "After 'The Color Wheel,' we wanted to continue by going deeper with our relationship to U.S. filmmakers," he said. In a more general sense, he said, "there may be a connection between these guys that are not in the system, not making movies just to become famous and make it in Hollywood. They want to hold onto their originality."

That's not to say that Locarno disregards more mainstream and bigger-budget fare. The Piazza Grande has proven hospitable to studio movies in previous years (the last edition hosted the European premiere of "Cowboys and Aliens" and opened with "Super 8"). Filmmakers in less immediate need of exposure also appreciate the distinctive environment. "The adjective that comes to mind when I think of Locarno is 'classy,'" said director Jay Duplass, who attended the festival in 2010 to screen his Fox Searchlight feature "Cyrus." "Patrons come not to pimp their film, slip you their screenplay or hobnob with famous people, but to celebrate movies and life.  I think I was even asked about my life outside of film.  It's definitely special and different from other festivals I've attended."

While there are no massive blockbusters in this year's Piazza lineup, it wasn't for lack of trying. Pére said he spoke to several studios and expressed interest in possibly screening both "The Bourne Legacy" and "Total Recall," but the timing didn't work out. Nevertheless, midsize studio films will screen on the Piazza this year for a unique double bill of "Magic Mike" and "Ruby Sparks." The Weinstein Company comedy "Bachelorette" is also on the schedule.

"Americans should wake up and realize that in terms of discovering new talent and exciting new films, Locarno should be a higher priority than Cannes or Venice."

Nadia Dresti, the head of Locarno's industry office, noted that the U.S. presence extended beyond films and filmmakers. "Locarno, with its long history, has always welcomed filmmakers, producers and actors from the U.S.," she said. "Of course, the turnout depends on the program." Distributors attending the festival this year hail from the likes of IFC Films, New Yorker Films, and Zeitgeist Films. There are also programmers from AFI Fest, Northwest Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image scheduled to attend.

Still, if filmmakers really want North America to notice their work, there are other festivals they must attend. Fortunately, a number of Locarno's titles make their way to the Toronto International Film Festival in September, sometimes riding the waves of Locarno buzz. ""Locarno gave us good word of mouth heading into Toronto, so the combination of the two worked out well for us," explained Julia Loktev, who premiered "The Loneliest Planet" at Locarno last year ahead of TIFF, in an email to Indiewire. "Locarno was also was good in terms of getting it to a global audience," she said. "For example, I'm at the Durban Film Festival now in South Africa, and the director just happened to mention that he first saw the film at Locarno."

It remains to be seen whether this year's American filmmakers come away from the festival striking a similarly enthusiastic tone. But if the festival's most devoted group of regulars is to be believed, there are reasons for optimism. "Locarno provided me with an unfathomably large platform from which to present a very small movie," said Perry. "Americans should wake up and realize that in terms of discovering new talent and exciting new films, Locarno should be a higher priority than Cannes or Venice."  
 

This article is related to: Locarno International Film Festival, Festivals, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Color Wheel, Alex Ross Perry, Craig Zobel, Sean Baker, Starlet, Compliance, Ruby Sparks, Magic Mike