The Los Angeles Film Festival starts June 14 with Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” as its opening-night film, but in its 23rd year the festival still hasn’t found its proper place on the film calendar.
Produced by Film Independent, LAFF has always been something of a feathered fish. Some of this stems from its summer timeframe: It arrives at mid-year, more than two months before new awards contenders reveal themselves at Telluride and long after acquisitions festivals like Toronto and Sundance have done their work (with support from SXSW and Tribeca that follow) .
LAFF has tried to make lemons into organic lemonade: Under the direction of recently departed Stephanie Allain, the LAFF moved away from the quality international fare favored by former programmer David Ansen to embrace its indie roots and chase world premieres from under-represented demographics.
It’s a worthy-minded strategy, but the result was a lineup that drew minimal press coverage due to a lack of big names. Attendance plummeted last year, from 90,000 to 40,000 — something that also reflected the decision to move from downtown to Culver City. Nor did the festival exposure have the desired effect; many titles were forgotten shortly after their premieres.
Under the direction of new director Jennifer Cochis (producer of James Ponsoldt’s “Smashed” and Drake Doremus’ “Douchebag”), the festival is starting to make some much-needed changes. Cochis has moved up fast: she began as a senior programmer in 2015 and moved to creative director last year. Here’s what LAFF is doing under her leadership.
1. The LAFF no longer has diversity quotas.
While 42% of the 2017 Competition titles are directed by women and 40% are directed by people of color, Cochis expanded the Premiere and Buzz sections so that hits on the festival circuit could be shown to L.A. audiences. They include Toronto’s “Lady Macbeth” (Roadside Attractions), Sundance breakouts “The Big Sick” (Amazon/Lionsgate), “Patti Cake$” (Fox Searchlight), and closing-night film “Ingrid Goes West” (Neon), and “Keep the Change” from Tribeca, which Cinetic Media is selling. One event sure to draw crowds: Cannes director winner Sofia Coppola is doing a Q&A at the LA County Museum to accompany a Focus Features double feature of “The Beguiled” and “Lost in Translation.”
Cochlis embraces adding the best-of-fest strategy to the LAFF lineup. “Not being original doesn’t preclude me from wanting to play it,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m excited to connect audiences to work and filmmakers who get to make more films. If a movie played somewhere else, we can be a platform and help the rest of your film’s tour.”
She knows she has to pull audiences out of their homes, always a challenge in Los Angeles. Cochis used her old friendship with director Colin Trevorrow to book her opening-night flick, “The Book of Henry” (Focus Features). “We were festival buddies at Sundance,” said Cochis. “He’s an ordinary guy that extraordinary things happened to. He’s an incredible director, and Naomi Watts gives an about-face performance.”
The LAFF is programmed by a large group who reach a democratic consensus after a discussion about audiences and inclusion. “When I’m watching films, I have no idea who made them,” Cochis said. “It’s down to how I react to film, and erring on the side of quality. We’re passionate about the film first, and we look at who made it second and figure it out from there. The festival can have both things co-exist: new and diverse work.”
One acquisition title she expects to score with festgoers is Vincent Grashaw’s “And Then I Go,” written by Brett Haley (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), starring Melanie Lynskey and produced by Rebecca Green and Laura D. Smith (“It Follows”). “We’re really mindful that we want a film from our festival to set the tone to want to see another film,” Cochis said. “We filled in each program with films that would please anybody. And then there are films that are more experimental and subversive and can stand on their merit. The competitions are where we have a lot of interesting storytellers.”
2. It’s no longer all about world premieres.
“I don’t mind if a film has played somewhere else,” said Cochis. “We wanted fewer world premieres. Most of our Competition still are, but we took that requirement off our World Fiction Competition. If a work played many other festivals, there’s nothing cooler than that.”
As to the perception that the festival relies on filmmaker cast, crew, friends and family to fill up each theater, it’s true that each film is allotted a percentage of tickets relative to the size of the house, from 35 percent-40 percent. Cochis lives in hope that paying customers will fill out the theaters.
3. There are more first-time filmmakers than ever.
65% of the films in the competition were directed by first-timers, partly due to the festival’s outreach. “We reached out to friends, film clubs, Film Fatales, alumnae, and anyone we could write to personally,” said Cochis. “‘Do you know anyone who has wrapped something, or can we see something new?'”
The final percentage of rookies was not deliberate. “It ended up breaking that way,” said Cochis. “These films were fresh and good. What I found is that many first-timers were surrounded by various seasoned producers and cast. We did not set out to to find first-time or emerging filmmakers; most of them are within the Competition.”
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