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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | L.A.’s The Place: A Tale of Two Festivals as AFI Fest Kicks Off

DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES | L.A.'s The Place: A Tale of Two Festivals as AFI Fest Kicks Off

Chatting with a non-industry friend recently in Southern California, it became clear that Los Angeles movie fans who aren’t frequent observers of the film industry sometimes find it hard to distinguish between LA’s two major annual film festivals — the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival and Film Independent‘s similarly named Los Angeles Film Festival. The friend was surprised at the impending arrival of AFI Fest (opening tonight in Hollywood): “Didn’t that event happen a few months ago?” Not exactly. In a city where locals often refer to La Brea as a dividing line between the dense but distinctive halves of L.A. on its east and west sides, it should hardly surprise anyone that Angelenos would embrace two large, annual international film festivals. One essentially for each side of town.

In June, the Film Independent event ushers in summer with an outdoor block party vibe in the walking neighborhood of Westwood (and a sprinkling of screenings on the east end of the city), while after Halloween each year, autumn moviegoing and awards season heats up in Hollywood with the AFI Fest at the plush Arclight Cinemas complex. When the sometimes stubbornly consistent Southern California weather shows even the slightest signs of change — from warm to cooler, then from cool to warmer — it must be time for a major film festival in Los Angeles.

AFI festivals director Christian Gaines (right) with AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale at the AFI Fest opening night on Thursday in Los Angeles. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Across the country in New York City the two largest local film events — the Tribeca Film Festival in the spring and the New York Film Festival in the fall — are vastly different types of fests. One a sprawling event with screenings at theaters all around Manhattan, the other a proudly selective uptown event for just a few dozen films. In recent conversations with the heads of both L.A. festivals earlier this week, it became apparent just how similar the two Southern California fests really are. And, for local and industry audiences alike, that may not be such a bad thing.

At a time when independent, international, and documentary films are facing tough times drawing significant audiences to movie theaters, film festivals like the two popular showcases here in Los Angeles have the opportunity to bring an eclectic cinema experience to large local audiences.

“I do believe that the responsibility of a good festival is to properly contextualize the films that it plays and that’s a complicated business because film festivals are a convergence of so many different constituents,” explained Christian Gaines, director of festivals for the American Film Institute, during the conversation with indieWIRE. “In the case of AFI Fest, L.A.’s a huge place. We try to be centralized and efficient. We try to balance both a program of anticipated new films that people are excited to see, with films that outlets like indieWIRE have already reported on, but that people are excited to see in Los Angeles.”

“About ten years ago, Sundance gained even more prominence and other festivals started coming to the forefront,” noted Richard Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, during a separate conversation with indieWIRE, “And a lot of people around L.A. started asking, ‘why doesn’t Los Angeles have a world class — or at least a very relevant — film festival’.” He added that both his event and AFI Fest are now creating something that is equally valubale to local audiences.

To get to that point, each festival has undergone a bit of change. The Los Angeles Film Festival was re-branded back in 2001 when Film Independent abandoned the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAIFF) moniker and remade their event as a larger international showcase. While AFI Fest picked up the gauntlet for the old FILMEX, and has since come into its own with the arrival of Gaines, who joined the festival in 2000 and this year hired Rose Kuo as artistic director of the festival following the recent departure of Nancy Collet as programming director.

Los Angeles Film Festival director Rich Raddon with Film independent executive director Dawn Hudson at this year’s festival. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Gaines and Raddon, during separate conversations with indieWIRE, echoed each other calling their events festivals of discovery, with primarily a focus on first and second time filmmakers in competition, aiming to engage the diversity of their city. Each festival also has a particularly strong emphasis on showcasing world cinema. This year, as foreign-language films face more and more hurdles finding meaningful theatrical distribution in the United States, the AFI Fest in particular has embraced a wider array of films from A-list international festivals like Cannes and Berlin.

Comfortably positioned six months after the Cannes Film Festival — and also on the heels of the Venice and Toronto fests — AFI Fest programmers have clearly taken advantage of their slot on the annual festival calendar. This year’s lineup boasts a large number of films that have been hits on this year’s international festival circuit.

“I don’t think these films are going to be easy or even enticing, but they’re important,” Rose Kuo told Variety, in a profile this week. “We’re making a conscious effort to include films that will be somehow important, in a world-historical sense of cinema.” To that end, the event will offer the first L.A. screenings of Christian Mungiu‘s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Carlos Reygadas‘ “Silent Night,” Lee Chang-dong‘s “Secret Sunshine” and Hou Hsiao Hsien‘s “Flight of the Red Balloon,” among others.

While international titles will feel a bright spotlight, the Los Angeles Times — a major sponsor of both the AFI’s Los Angeles International Film Festival and Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival — noted in its AFI Fest curtain-raiser yesterday that this year’s event also features a number of movies set in an around Los Angeles itself. Writer Mark Olsen cited such projects as Richard Kelly‘s “Southland Tales,” Cecilia Miniucchi‘s “Expired,” Arthur Dong‘s “Hollywood Chinese,” and Lauren Greenfield‘s “Kids + Money.” Summing it up, AFI Fest associate director of programming Shaz Bennett told the LA Times, “there were just so many awesome movies that seemed to be about Hollywood and Los Angeles, from different points of view.”

Meanwhile, over at the LA Weekly today, Scott Foundas (editor of the film section and a member of the selection committee for this year’s New York Film Fesival), was a bit more critical in showcasing this year’s AFI Fest for his readers, but with a major compliment on its direction. “The tide has turned at AFI Fest,” Foundas lead in the opening sentence of a fest preview, “from embarrassment to embarrassment of riches.”

97 feature films are on tap for AFI Fest including seven world premiere films, seventeen North American premieres and eighteen U.S. premieres, although organizers have said they have downplayed premiere status in selecting films for this year. The fest is opening tonight (Thursday) with Robert Redford‘s “Lions For Lambs” and closing with Mike Newell‘s “Love In The Time of Cholera,” with Jason Reitman‘s “Juno” set as the festival’s centerpiece gala.

Screening in AFI Fest’s international feature competition are Bard Breien’s “The Art of Negative Thinking” (Kunsten a Tenke Negativt), Vieko Ounpuu’s “Autumn Ball,” Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” Stephane Lafleur’s “Continental, A Film Without Guns” (Continental, Un Film Sans Fusil), Kevin Aduaka’s “Elvis Pelvis“, Daihachi Yoshida’s “Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers” (Funekedomo, Kanashimi No Ai Wo Misero), Pablo Fendrik’s “The Mugger” (El Asaltante), Lee Isaac Chung’s “Munyurangabo,” Loo Zihan, Kan Lume’s “Solos,” Aaron Fernandez’s “Used Parts” (Partes Usadas), and Paprika Steen’s “With Your Permission” (Til Doden Os Skiller).

While in the international documentary competition are: Andrea Kreuzhage’s “1000 Journals,” Andreas Mol Dalsgaard’s “Afghan Muscles,” Colectivo Klamve’s “Atenco, A Crime of State” (Atenco, Un Crimen de Estado), Guido Santi & Tina Macara‘s “Chris & Don. A Love Story,” Michael Addis‘s “Heckler,” Nina Davenport‘s “Operation Filmmaker,” Steve York‘s “Orange Revolution,” Weijun Chen‘s “Please Vote For Me,” Robert Patton-Spruill‘s “Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome,” Oded Lotan‘s “The Quest for the Missing Piece” (Behikvot Ahatiha Ahasera”), Dean de Blois‘s “Sigur Ros – Heima” and Laura Dunn‘s “The Unforseen.”

Looking to the future, Rich Raddon at Film Independent is thinking about how his festival can reach an even wider audience locally, by including programming of broader interest. “We want to be a celebration of all kinds of film and we want that to extend into music, into television, [to be] an overall celebration.” The festival already incorporates live music events and outdoor family programs into its festival. “We want to speak to the broader industry and the broader whole of entertainment.”

Meanwhile at AFI, AFI Fest anchors year-round programming at the Arclight in Hollywood and is the flagship festival for an organization that also runs the SilverDocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival outside Washington, D.C. and the recently launched AFI Dallas International Film Festival in Texas. Gaines praised his organization as the largest non-profit exhibitor in the United States and he hinted that down the road he hopes to establish a more connected network of festivals that work even more closely together.

Perhaps AFI Fest and the L.A. Film Festival are quite different after all.

More information on the AFI Fest roster is available in a recent indieWIRE article.

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