Last year’s annual Los Angeles Film Festival started June 14 with Colin Trevorrow’s ill-fated “The Book of Henry” as its opening-night film, and continued with a program full of emerging independent filmmakers. The result was rock-bottom attendance with minimal press coverage, save from media sponsor The Los Angeles Times.
This year marks its first in a fall slot (September 20-28), a berth between the Toronto and New York film festivals. The opening-night premiere by record exec-turned filmmaker Andrew Slater was LA-centric music documentary “Echo in the Canyon;” held at the outdoor John Ford Amphitheater, a balmy Jakob Dylan and Michelle Phillips concert followed.
Is this the vibe that will let LAFF finally find its identity? Produced by Film Independent and now in its 24th year, the festival was once a summer home for quality international titles, then a place for world-premiere indie titles and films from under-represented demographics, it’s now under the leadership of Jennifer Cochis, a programmer and producer of James Ponsoldt’s “Smashed” and Drake Doremus’ “Douchebag.”
With the move to September, LAFF could now benefit from the influx of awards titles revealed on the fall festival circuit. However, it’s not a simple matter of build-it-and-they-will come; there’s already plenty of long-established options for distributors, who might hesitate to give their movies to an event that still trying to find itself after nearly a quarter century.
However, Film Independent president Josh Welsh said that awards movies aren’t really the point. “I don’t think the world needs another one of those big fall festivals on the awards circuit,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re still highlighting discovery and smaller titles. This is an artist-driven festival.”
While the dearth of ticket sales might appear to be a primary motivator, Welsh said the move to fall was under consideration for three years. “We’re not crazy,” he said. “But we had a growing sense that summer was an increasingly challenging time for indie films. And the fall landscape felt like a natural home.”
Cochis said that the summer slot was never a fit. “June is a home for tentpole movies and people on vacation,” she said. “Since this indie film festival started 24 years ago, it felt more like there was dissonance having an indie film festival plopped in the middle of the summer. For the first time in September, we have access to more young people who are able to attend the festival. We’ve never been able to engage with the student population at UCLA, USC, and LMU before, where people are coming to learn the craft of filmmaking, and offer student bundles and ticket prices in order to engage with a future generation of moviegoers.”
LAFF had to educate distributors and filmmakers that they were trying something new. “I talked to all the usual suspects,” Cochis said. “We also had a limited amount of slots. We’re learning by doing, trying to reorient the press and go door to door saying, ‘you might have remembered us in June; now we’re in September.’ We have a lot riding on what this will grow into being. This being year one, let’s see how this goes.”
That said, the new LAFF lineup is very similar to the emerging indie program they’ve booked in the past. Nonetheless, the festival says pass sales to date are triple what they were last year, with tickets trending up as well.
While there are few high-profile galas, there’s also a best-of-fest mindset that includes titles that may head for Oscar contention. “We’re showcasing the best new work for the LA audience from Cannes, Venice, SXSW, and Tribeca,” said Welsh.
“We have different metrics of success,” said Cochis. “These are titles journalists and people are excited to see, and so we’re giving them access.”
Audiences can sample NatGeo’s Toronto documentary Audience Award winner, climbing film “Free Solo,” Fox Searchlight’s Melissa McCarthy dramedy “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” and Swedish Oscar entry and Un Certain Regard prize-winner “Border” (Neon). Other known titles include Berlin Screenwriting Silver Bear winner “Museo,” a Mexican heist film starring Gael Garcia Bernal, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Keaton documentary “The Great Buster” (Cohen Media).
The world premieres include Ike Barinholtz’s comedy “The Oath” (Roadside Attractions), starring Tiffany Haddish, John Cho, and Carrie Brownstein, and Kurt Mattila’s personal documentary “Stuntman,” which has landed executive producer Duane Johnson as it seeks a distributor.
One section that sold out right away was the Loyola Marymount VR Portal programmed by former AFI FEST director Jacqueline Lyanga. “There’s an appetite and energy and enthusiasm for it,” said Cochis.
Cochis kept the competition sections trim: under 50 films, with no set numbers per section. In fact the festival shrank to 143 titles, including shorts and VR pieces. “We kept to tiny competition sections on purpose,” she said, “to give the films a chance to be easily digestible and impact the run of the film for the filmmaker.” Welsh is also proud that many titles came through Film Independent’s labs, including Kate Nash’s documentary “Underestimate the Girl” and Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown’s “United Skates.”
For the festival’s opening night, Cochis went with giving the LA audience a good time with “Echo in the Canyon.” “I was weighing the platform itself — opening night at LAFF — what that means,” she said. “That stage and spotlight could be given to any variety of things. So we put forward this documentary film from a first-time filmmaker, to create an experience you could only have in LA, playing at the Ford outside with a picnic and music component. We decided to give them something unique at home.”
The LAFF is programmed by a large group that reaches a democratic consensus after a discussion that weighs audiences as well as inclusion. While Cochis would love to reach 50/50 male/female director parity at the festival, she looks to her diverse group of programmers to have an eye for reflecting the world. “It’s not about, ‘You have to look for certain number films by gender,'” she said. “Inherently, people in the room are driving what we’re doing, always. ‘Is this film ready to go out into the world? Is this filmmaker ready to be put into the public eye?’ It’s the responsibility of every gatekeeper to use their platform correctly.”
Included in the LAFF are more episodic and new media titles such as Jason Blum’s premiere for Hulu horror series “Into the Dark,” as well as all the short films from Film Independent’s Project Involve. A 25-year celebration will be held Saturday night at the mansion of Jeffrey Soros. The festival is also welcoming Global Media Makers, fourteen mid-career filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa, who will screen their films at LAFF and start a six-week residency program.
“We’re here to to serve the filmmaker,” said Cochis. For next year, she will analyze what worked and what didn’t. “We’re not going to change for the sake of change. We’ll get on the other side of the festival first.”