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Toolkit | Meet the Los Angeles Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words)

Toolkit | Meet the Los Angeles Film Festival Programmers (In Their Own Words)

Continuing our series profiling festival programmers, beginning with the Sundance Film Festival last Summer and later SXSW and Tribeca, indieWIRE is profiling the programmers of the Los Angeles Film Festival, taking place January 16 – 26 in Downtown Los Angeles.

With the festival’s final deadline looming, LAFF programmers offer up their insights on how they create and re-create their yearly event as well as their advice for filmmakers looking to screen their work at the annual event. Film Independent, the group that organizes LAFF, said that all areas of the festival’s annual lineup are curated by its small group of programmers.

The Los Angeles Film Festival began as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival (LAIFF) in 1995. The first LAIFF took place over the course of five days at the historic Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, and in 1996, the LAIFF expanded to include the Directors Guild of America. The LAIFF ran for six years, until it was absorbed by Film Independent (formerly IFP/West) in 2001. At its height, the LAIFF attracted 19,000 attendees. Today, the Los Angeles Film Festival attracts over 85,000, according to organizers.

The 2010 Festival presented 200 features, shorts, and music videos from more than 40 countries. LAFF touts its “unique signature programs” including the Filmmaker Retreat, Ford Amphitheater Outdoor Screenings, Poolside Chats, and more.

Upcoming Deadlines:

The regular deadline for the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival is January 14th. Final deadline for short films and music videos is February 11th. Feature-length and documentary films deadline is February 24th.

For more information, visit the Los Angeles Film Festival’s website.

David Ansen (Artistic Director)

Ansen on his background…

I’ve spent the last 35 years as a movie critic, first at The Real Paper in Boston and then at Newsweek. For eight years in the ’90s I served on the selection committee for the New York Film Festival, which gave me a taste of programming. Working as Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Film Festival feels like a natural outgrowth of my years as a critic, but it’s given me a new and broader perspective.

Considering LAFF’s place on the festival circuit and the Skywalker retreat…

LAFF’s Artistic Director David Ansen. Photo courtesy of Film Independent.

LAFF is important for many reasons, not least of all — it takes place in the heart of the movie industry. We can draw on that vast pool of talent to share its knowledge with the audience on panels and seminars and special evenings and with the filmmakers from around the world whose films we show.

This festival has always treated its filmmakers extremely well, starting with our unique filmmakers retreat – held last year at Skywalker Ranch – in which all our feature filmmakers get to know each other before the festival begins, so that they don’t feel like strangers in a strange land, and get to meet and learn from industry veterans like Kathryn Bigelow and Curtis Hanson and many others.

Coming in June, we get to showcase the best of the summer and autumn fare. Bottom line is, there are so many amazing films out there that would never reach an audience were it not for the festival, especially foreign, documentary, and indie titles. And this leads to the next question…

Changing distribution and the move downtown…

Because distribution of non-mainstream movies is getting tougher and tougher, the role of film festivals is more crucial than ever. This can be the only opportunity people get to see many of these films in a theater. And to meet filmmakers from all over the world.

LAFF made a big change last year by moving downtown, and it felt as if we were drawing an audience that was more representative of ALL of L.A. than ever before. There’s an explosion of artistic energy downtown, and we were happy to both draw on that energy and feed it. It felt like the right place to be.


Astonish us.

And, if its humanly possibly, try not to take it too personally if we turn you down: We only show 80 to 90 feature films among thousands that are submitted. It hurts us to say no too.

It’s pretty simple: Good movies, of any and all stripes. Those movies that make you sit up and say, “Wow, there’s a fascinating new voice!” Movies that open you up to new worlds. Or movies that take old forms and give them fresh and novel twists. And we’re looking for great retrospective films, whether it’s a new restoration of “The Leopard” or bringing back a forgotten master like Argentina’s Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. We’re looking for films that give pleasure, whether it appeals to a broad audience or a specialized one.

Considering Los Angeles and Hollywood…

As I said before, the one of a kind talent pool in Los Angeles makes it possible both for audiences and filmmakers to mingle with and learn from the best in the business. Our seminars and panels and poolside chats and Q&A’s try to take advantage of that. And it would be nice to think that Hollywood might learn a thing or two from some of the movies we show that come from a totally different filmmaking perspective.

Some of Ansen’s favorites…

I have too many LAFF favorites to know where to begin. Here’s a link to my top ten list that I did for Newsweek this year:


Every decade has a different kind of “Los Angeles film” but one that made an indelible impression is Robert Altman’s “California Split,” one of his greatest and most underrated movies. It captures a period and a place and a subculture like no other movie. It’s a movie about gambling and hope and desperation and living on the edge-all in a quintessential L.A. style.

Doug Jones, Associate Director of Programming

Going from popcorn in Sioux Falls to California…

When I was 14, I lied about my age and got a job shoveling popcorn behind the concession stand of the Hollywood Theater in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Since then, there’s never been a time when I wasn’t working one way or another in film. Throughout high school and college, I worked at movie theaters. I went to film school and then worked in film production for a few years. After moving from Minneapolis to San Francisco in 1994, I started working at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where I began as the print trafficker, responsible for getting every film to the festival and then sending it on its way afterwards. Luckily, I was able to move into the film programming side of things in ensuing years, meaning I only had to watch the movies, not lift them. (Film prints are heavy, and back then everything was a film print.)

In addition to San Francisco, I’ve curated films for the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, the Noise Pop Film Festival and the Mill Valley Film Festival (both in northern California). I started working with the Los Angeles Film Festival back in 2002 and became the Associate Director of Programming here in 2009.

LAFF as a filmmakers’ festival

LAFF programmer Doug Jones. Photo courtesy of Film Independent.

Being a production of Film Independent, Los Angeles Film Festival is very much a filmmakers festival. That comes very naturally to us. It’s in the organization’s DNA. So when a filmmaker come to the festival, not only do we strive to make sure that they have a great screening, but that they experience and benefit from the festival as a whole. This starts at our Filmmaker Retreat, where we get as many feature directors together before the festival actually begins and take them away somewhere, so they can relax before the festival craziness kicks in and, most importantly, actually meet each other.

Too often a filmmaker’s experience of a festival consists of little more than a screening and Q&A. At Los Angeles, we want the filmmakers to interact, to have fun together, to go see each others’ films. In a way, it takes on a summer camp feel. Filmmakers meet in Los Angeles and become BFFs. People have gone on to work together and, in a few cases, date, marry and start a family.

LAFF’s evolution…

In some ways, the festival has changed a lot since I first started working on it almost ten years ago. We’ve tweaked its name, moved its location and nearly tripled the number of festival goers, yet the heart of the festival has remained the same. It’s about the films that we feel passionate about.

One aspect of the festival that continually develops in response to filmmaker needs is the focus of the panels and special events that are produced by Film Independent’s Film Education team. We’ve always used the festival as an opportunity to bring people together to discuss filmmaking trends, and over the years, the discussions have ranged from the tools of production to financing to marketing. As new issues and opportunities arise for filmmakers, we want the festival to be a place for filmmakers to discuss and learn from one another.

More advice…

Creatively, I would say make the best film you can to make and be sure it’s the film you want to make. Ignore the trends. Ignore whatever was last year’s big success story. Each time an opening credit hits the screen, it’s a new beginning. Seize that opportunity and surprise us.

Don’t get distracted by designing a fancy DVD cover or recording a commentary track or baking us cookies. (There will be time for all that later.) Focus on your film, because that’s what we will be focused on.

Then, boringly, I have to say pay attention to the nuts and bolts. Read the entry form. Follow the instructions. Be sure to write your name and the name of your film somewhere on your DVD. It’s silly to say, but you’d be surprised how often people forget.

When we start working on the festival each year, we really don’t have any preconceived notions of what we hope to find in terms of topic or tone. Rather we want to find films that we are excited about, that strike us as compelling, funny, unique, original… The list of adjectives could go on and on, but what’s consistent for each film in the festival is that something about it struck a chord with us and we want to share it with our audiences.

It’s important to me that the festival be a place for all kinds of films. In years past, we’ve shown summertime studio blockbusters like “Despicable Me” alongside microbudget indies. We’ve shown shorts that barely last a minute, and we’ve shown 14-hour Chinese documentaries. It’s all about finding the right balance, a cinematic equilibrium that allows people of all interests and tastes to come together and experience the festival.

LAFF as an opportunity for all to have a seat at the table…

Los Angeles as a city and a film community often seems like it’s being reflected through a prism. There are all these differing elements — red carpet premieres to underground screenings, office buildings occupied by studio executives and agents to coffee shops packed with aspiring filmmakers — that are tied together, reflected in one another, but that don’t come together all that often. The Los Angeles Film Festival is an opportunity for everyone to have a seat at the table. The community that grows out of each year’s festival includes everyone — filmmakers, film lovers and the film industry (not that those three have to be exclusive).

And favorites…

Hmm… Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters” comes immediately to mind, because I am so excited for his take on Godzilla. Other recent festival highlights include “Marwencol,” “Separado!,” “Space Tourists,” “Disco & Atomic War,” “The Wolf Knife,” the music video for Astronautalis’ “Trouble Hunters,” “Skhizein,” “Ponyo,” “Calimucho,” “October Country,” “Extraordinary Stories,” “Crude Oil,” “Loot,” “Let the Right One In.”

Recent non-LAFF favorites include “Toy Story 3,” “The Illusionist,” “The Four Times,” “Sweetgrass,” “The Children,” “Mother,” “To the Sea/Alamar,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “WALL-E.”

And favorite LA film?

My favorite Los Angeles film? Please don’t make me choose between “Sunset Boulevard, “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “Valley Girl.” My favorite Los Angeles guilty pleasure is much easier — “Night of the Comet,” in which two valley girls are among only people left after a mysterious comet turns everyone on Earth either into dust or zombies.

Jennifer Wilson, Programming Coordinator

Jennifer’s road to film…

I was an actress/software tester for 11 years in Chicago. I had always had a deep love for film, and around 2002 a friend asked me to start writing movie reviews for her website. I started getting media credentials to all these amazing little festivals in Chicago and to the Chicago International Film Festival and discovered this world that I really wanted to be a part of somehow.

LAFF programmer Jennifer Wilson. Image courtesy of Film Independent.

I decided to quit my job, leave Chicago, and go to grad school for film studies at Chapman University. After I got my MA, I interned with Film Independent, met Doug Jones and Rachel Rosen, and got my job with the festival in 2007. And I can say, without a doubt, it has been the greatest job experience I’ve ever had. I’m very glad to be part of the LAFF family.

Considering LAFF’s place.

It’s really hard to pin down the city of Los Angeles and define its nature because it’s so intertwined with this massive idea about what Hollywood is and what its mythology is all about, but I’ve always looked at our festival’s job as providing a destination and an event that’s for every resident of this city.

We always have that goal in mind along with the goal of providing a home for filmmakers, and being a festival that they want to be a part of. It’s great that LAFF is under the umbrella organization of Film Independent because that gives us the chance to involve the LAFF alumni in the year-round filmmaking labs and other events that FIND does.

Festivals becoming ‘part of the distribution plan…

You know, I think festivals have always had this mission to help bring films to a city and to an audience that might not get to see them through the traditional film distribution model. And now with that distribution model in an extreme state of flux, festivals are starting to see themselves as even more necessary to filmmakers to help them find their audience.

In general, I think festivals are increasingly seeing it as their mission to help filmmakers secure some kind of distribution. And in some cases festivals are actually seeking to become a part of what will be the new distribution model going forward. Many festivals are now streaming their content simultaneously on the internet or offering it via some cable channel, and they’re also programming screenings of their films in other cities.

Practical advice…

I get this question a lot. For short filmmakers I always say you’re going to double your odds of getting into a festival if your short is really SHORT. That means no more than 15 minutes, and if you can make it shorter than that, even better. For features, by far the number one mistake people make in their first-time feature is using a narrator. And this includes documentaries.

Of course I’m not saying a narrator never works. One of the greatest American films of all time, “Sunset Boulevard,” has a narrator. It’s just very hard to make it work, and first-time filmmakers almost never do it right. For first-time documentary filmmakers, don’t insert yourself into your film.

We’re always looking for diverse content. For movies about marginalized communities that maybe have not been represented on film very much. But we’re also looking for unique points-of-view on universal themes too. And because this is LA, we always have an eye out for things that are specifically about what’s unique about Los Angeles and its residents.

I always love to see LA locales on film that people haven’t used before. Many filmmakers are shooting downtown, which became LAFF’s new home in 2010. It’s awesome because downtown is like an undiscovered country for Angelenos, and it’s nice to be reminded that we live in a historic and beautiful city with many diverse locales.

Some favorite films…

I don’t really like to single out any of the films we’ve shown because I cherish all those filmmakers/films and the experience of getting to know them. Each will live in my memory for a long time to come. Some favorites that we haven’t shown: “Synecdoche NY,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Waltz With Bashir,” “Afterschool,” “Mother,” “Mother and Child,” “Eagle vs. Shark,” “The Headless Woman,” “Silent Light,” “Nights & Weekends,” “Goliath,” “Destricted,” Running Stumbled,” “Helvetica,” “Contracorriente,” “Biutiful,” “Zodiac,” “The Reader,” “The White Ribbon,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “A Single Man,” “A Prophet,” “Sex Positive,” “Easier With Practice,” “XXY,” “Black Swan,” “The Red Riding Trilogy,” “I Am Love.”

Favorite LA film is really easy for me because Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown” happens to be my favorite film already and it is the quintessential LA film, but it marries many of my deepest interests which are LA, history, and murder.

Check out these prior participants in the Los Angles Film Festival, courtesy of SnagFilms [Disclaimer: SnagFilms is indiewire’s parent company]
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