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Rise of the Critic-Turned-Programmer?

Rise of the Critic-Turned-Programmer?

With the appointment of Newsweek critic David Ansen as Los Angeles Film Festival’s new Artistic Director yesterday, the programming ranks at fests are swelling with people who have made their names in film criticism. The New York Film Festival’s programming committee is packed with critics, who took a bit of a lashing earlier this Fall from one of their own, A.O. Scott in the New York Times. AFI Fest’s new programmer this year, Robert Koehler, hails from film criticism, and there may be more to come.

As Anne Thompson noted in her write up on the Ansen appointment, LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas is among those in the mix to take former Film Society of Lincoln Center Kent Jones’ old job (after he left to work with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation). The Film Society, which produces the annual NYFF, should reveal its ultimate choice soon.

One has to look toward Europe to find a notable exception to this migration. The Edinburgh Fest’s former Artistic Director Shane Danielsen left his gig a few years back, and is now focusing his attention to criticism (he has written about several events for indieWIRE in the past two years in addition to numerous other outlets).

The serious decline in film criticism Stateside has meant a lot of industry professionals, many of whom are veterans of the film festival circuit, have looked to other aspects of the industry in order to remain within the business.

“If this were a few years ago when I was a full time critic, I seriously doubt I would’ve taken the job, but then again, I doubt they would’ve come to me,” Ansen told indieWIRE on Monday afternoon in a phone conversation. “I had a buy-out of my contract, [and] obviously it’s not a good time to be a film critic.” Though Ansen will take the reins as LAFF’s Artistic Director, working with the fest’s Director Rebecca Yeldham, who is also relatively new to the organization, he will continue to work for Newsweek occasionally. He will also moderate the publication’s annual Oscar roundtable in January.

“I have not totally hung up my hat as a critic,” Ansen added, “but it’s nice after all these years sitting alone in a room in front of the screen to now be working with a team.” In addition to his work at Newsweek, Ansen also served on NYFF’s selection committee for eight years, and even served on LAFF’s doc jury this past year.

The Los Angeles Film Festival’s new Artistic Director, David Ansen. Image courtesy of Film Independent.

Unlike his colleague across town at AFI Fest, which had major changes at this year’s edition that closed out over the weekend, Ansen said the staples of Film Independent’s event should remain in place for the Los Angeles Film Festival’s 2010 edition, slated for June 18 – 28. He hinted that some changes may be afoot, though he declined to go into details.

He expressed excitement for its future, however, saying that plans the festival is pursuing were, in part, why he found the position alluring, but added that the traditional size of about 80 features would remain about the same for 2010. When asked about the fest’s current home base in Westwood, where it moved from its Sunset 5 anchor in West Hollywood in 2006, Ansen said it will most likely remain in the West L.A. neighborhood – but then said that he wouldn’t comment further. Still he said, there are “great opportunities for the festival to expand.”

“Part of this job is convincing people why [LAFF] is a good place to come to, and as we’ve seen, not a lot of films were being picked up out of Toronto this year,” Ansen said, “This might make [for an advantageous] change for LAFF. Why not go to LA and let the right people see a movie here? From a selfish programmer point of view, it could be a light for the festival.”

In a Monday blog posting in his Back Row Manifesto, Sarasota Film Festival head programmer Tom Hall praised his new programming counterparts at AFI and LAFF, but also offered some friendly advice and a bit of a reality check to the critics-turned-programmers:

“When you’re dealing with a sponsor driven, non-profit event, you can’t show all the movies you love and you have to show a few you don’t like. Unlike the process of developing a critical corpus and a theoretical vision for ‘a certain type of film,’ the job of festival programming is not about having great taste (which, by the way, everyone thinks they have)…In welcoming my critic friends into the community of programmers, I offer a little bit of hard-won wisdom; film programming is a harbor for constant disappointment. We’re told ‘no’ constantly, we have to tell other people ‘no’ all the time, we do our best in negotiating all sorts of tricky problems between a multitude of interests…”

Whatever the realities, LAFF has found itself a well-known and accomplished vet to join its ranks, and merging artistic idealism with pragmatic reality is simply an age-old cinematic dance.

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