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The 1997 AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival

The 1997 AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival

The 1997 AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival

by Stephen Garrett

What could be more disparate than a festival spread over ten miles? Yet the
hat trick of the 1997 AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, held
from October 23 to November 1, is its sense of cohesion — this year more
than ever thanks in great part to its new director, Jon Fitzgerald.

“We’ve definitely been embraced by the film community and by the local
community,” says Fitzgerald about support for the changes he spearheaded.
“And I think we’re taking steps in the right direction.” Straight from the
trenches of guerrilla festival management, Fitzgerald, a co-founder of
Slamdance, was last spring wooed away from Park City programming to join
the American Film Institute and its ongoing improvements to Los Angeles’
oldest major film festival.

Last year the AFI Film Fest had its best attendance, breaking over 40,000
in ticket sales over the course of its two-week run. But this year
Fitzgerald, building on past success, helped to generate over 1,000
submissions (doubling last year’s count), more than tripled sponsorship
(joining hipper, film-specific clientele like FILMMAKER Magazine and Short
Cinema Journal
with such big guns as the U.S. Postal Service, Intel, and
United Airlines), and concentrated its schedule by cutting the festival to
10 days from 15. Attendance this year increased by 30%, selling out a third
of the screenings — no small feat in a town notorious for making films but
never watching them.

The role of every good film festival is to promote the movies — and the
1997 AFI Film Fest was in many ways a cineaste’s delight. With the creation
of a competitive category, a documentary section, a Latin American sidebar,
a spotlight on first-time filmmakers called New Visions, and a section
devoted to World Cinema, films, though fewer in number than in last year’s
festival, received much more of a showcase: from Beeban Kidron’s “Swept From The Sea” as the opening night film to closing night’s delightful “Afterglow“,
directed by Alan Rudolph (both films receiving their U.S. premiere), from
the U.S. premiere of Zhang Yimou’s “Keep Cool” (denied access to Cannes
earlier this year by the Chinese government) to the U.S. premiere of Zhan
Yuan’s “East Palace, West Palace” and the world premiere of Henry Jaglom’s
Deja Vu“, as well as screenings of other notable foreign films like Agnes
Merlet’s “Artemisia“, Juraj Jakubisko’s “An Ambiguous Report About The End Of The World“, Thomas Jahn’s German box-office blockbuster “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door“, Luis Galvao Teles’ “Elles“, and Mike van Diem’s “Character” (which nabbed
the festival’s Grand Jury Prize), Fitzgerald and his selection committee
made sure that the AFI Film Fest was presenting world-class product.

But it also made sure to champion American independent films, such as Peter
Kosminsky’s “No Child Of Mine“; Jack Perez’s “The Big Empty“; Joe and Anthony
Russo’s “Pieces“; “Trekkies“, Roger Nygard’s documentary on Star Trek fans;
Rodney Lee Roger’s “Steaming Milk“; and Gary Rosen’s “Hacks“, all of which,
especially without a distributor, would otherwise disappear or go straight
to video without the theatrical exhibition that festivals offer.

The most infamous example of a crowd-pleasing, award-winning, critically
accepted film still without distribution is “Eight Days A Week“, Michael
Davis’ coming-of-age film about a teenage boy who spends a summer standing
under the bedroom window of the girl he loves. Thankfully, the AFI Film
Fest gave it and other orphan films the opportunity to be recognized in a
studio-run industry town like L.A.

Ticket sales aside, the greatest improvement to the festival was its
newfound sense of community. Fitzgerald added hospitality suites in
Hollywood as well as Santa Monica (the festival’s two main screening hubs),
where filmmakers, journalists, publicists and audience members could meet,
greet and generally mingle with each other. A half-dozen television
monitors ran continuous loops of past AFI special tribute dinners in
addition to freshly-generated video interviews with directors whose films
were playing in the festival — sometimes even running trailers and
excerpts from the movies as well.

Whereas in years past the festival concentrated on programming films, this
time Fitzgerald, taking a cue from his Slamdance experience, added two
panel discussions: “Breaking and Entering the Film Business,” moderated by
Billy Frolick, author of “What I Really Want To Do Is Direct“; and “Notes on
Film,” a panel on film scoring moderated by local music authority Chris
Douridas (host of KCRW-FM’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” required listening
for music industry insiders).

“Breaking and Entering” was a capacity-crowd seminar held at the historic
Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The panelists included writer/director James
Mangold (“Copland“, “Heavy“), co-writer/producer Tom Musca (“Stand And Deliver“, “Money For Nothing“), director Alex Zamm (“Chairman Of The Board“, starring
Carrottop), writer/director Liz Cane (winner of the Jack Nicholson
Distinguished Director Award for her UCLA short “That’s What Short Women Want“), director John Keitel (“Defying Gravity“), and writer/director John
Herzfeld (“2 Days In The Valley“). Their advice on making it in Hollywood was
both inspiring and sobering. “No one ever asked me where I went to college
and where I went to grad school,” said Musca in response to a question
about the importance of films schools, and continued with insights about
how crucial it is to pick a good crew, especially on low-budget projects
where pay is low and people look for other ways of recompense. Get the
wrong cinematographer, he pointed out, “and your film becomes his
experimental reel.” Herzfeld stressed the role of the producer as well: “a
great producer will kill for you and your vision.”

“Notes on Film” contained a lively discussion about the ways in which music
is used in a film, not just for dramatic effect but also as a marketing
tool. Panelists included Harlan Goodman, Senior VP of Music at Paramount
Studios; Jonathan McHugh, VP Soundtrack Marketing for New Line Cinema;
Randall Poster, Music Supervisor on films such as “I Shot Andy Warhol” and
KIDS; film director Stacy Title (“Down On The Waterfront“, “The Last Supper“);
and ex-Police member and composer Stewart Copeland (“Rumblefish“, “Wall Street“). “You have to be looking ahead at what band is going to sound
contemporary,” said McHugh, illustrating the perennial quandary of picking
soundtrack songs from new bands. “It’s always that hunger to find the next
guy but still have a big enough name [for the record company].” The best
insights on film music came from Copeland, though, who tossed off wonderful
pearls of wisdom including how musically to indicate the bad guy: “B-flat
works every time.”

Every year the festival pays tribute to a show biz celebrity; this year
laudations went to Jessica Lange for her body of work — a particularly
steamy one, as the tribute montage revealed, to which Lange jokingly
replied, “I didn’t realize I played so many love scenes!” An hour long
onstage interview with Leonard Maltin revealed anecdotes about her past,
including an unsuccessful audition for “Raging Bull“, as well as the privacy
of her family life with longtime companion Sam Shepard and their three
daughters. Responding to a question about her children’s excitement over
their mother’s movie star career, she candidly replied, “they don’t have
much interest — and I’m glad they don’t.”

Despite the generous attention Fitzgerald lavished on creating a truly
festive atmosphere to go with the screenings, the 1997 AFI Los Angeles
International Film Festival was first and foremost about the films. If its
improvement is in any way indicative of things to come, then Los Angeles
will soon have the kind of festival befitting the moviemaking capital of
the world.

[Stephen Garrett, a frequent contributor to indieWIRE, is a writer and editor
based in Los Angeles.]

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