At first glance, the term "Los Angeles Film Festival" seems almost redundant. Why on earth would L.A. — home of the Oscars and the Golden Globes, not to mention every American studio, film institute and film industry union, where premieres and various red carpet events tangle traffic somewhere in town every night — need a film festival? Isn't pretty much every day here a film festival?
No, no, no, say the organizers of the festival, which begins today and runs through July 2. Los Angeles needs a world-class film festival, they say, precisely because the idea might seem redundant.
"So many people in L.A. are, quite frankly, ground down by life in the industry," says Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, which produces the festival. "We want to remind them why they came here in the first place. We want to remind them that it was for a love of film."
Oh, right, film. The stuff that came before the designer gowns, competitive canapés and celebrity pregnancy countdowns. The stuff on which, along with railroads, water rights and real estate, Los Angeles was founded. Surprisingly, the fact that film is to L.A. what cars are to Detroit has hindered more than helped. Since they took over the then-Los Angeles Independent Film Festival five years ago, Hudson and Film Independent have worked to create an event that would not only give Hollywood a new appreciation of its art but also prove that L.A. is not too Industry to care about true independents.
"There is a stigma about showing international and independent film in L.A.," Hudson says. "We want to prove that you can have a local festival that attracts all members of the community and that its heart and soul is serious independent film."
It seems to be working. As little as five years ago, it was a distinctly local event with attendance at about 12,000 and virtually no industry buzz, much less participation. Last year it drew 60,000 people, including such luminaries as Sydney Pollack (who was the guest director), George Clooney and Halle Berry, and officially outgrew its Hollywood venue.
This year, the festival, which is presented by the Los Angeles Times, will take over much of Westwood, where festival director Richard Raddon expects 80,000. The guest director will be George Lucas, who is hosting a retreat for participating feature filmmakers; and the opening film will be the much anticipated chick-lit adaptation "The Devil Wears Prada." Stars including Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen, Anne Hathaway and Aidan Quinn will participate in various events, and Charlize Theron will receive the second annual Spirit of Independence Award.
"When we started, I'd call agents and say 'Are you coming to the festival?' and they'd be like, 'What festival?' " Raddon says. Now, he says, studios and agencies buy blocks of tickets weeks ahead.
In fact, as early as the second week of June, on the stuffy second floor of the converted bank building that serves as the festival's headquarters, the woman in charge of the box office was encountering one of the few things that makes her panic — two of the films in competition were already sold out.
"See?" said Raddon when he found out. "See how popular we are?"
Popular, perhaps; glamorous, not so much.
The festival's headquarters are about as far from the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Palais in ambience as they are in geography. Here a constant drone of phone conversations hovers over the industrial-strength carpeting. There may be PCs and BlackBerrys by the dozen, but there is only one bathroom in the place, with a little tag marked "men" to be hung on the door whenever a male staff member is inside.
This is the price of changing venues. It was Raddon who spent many weeks last year scouting a new location for the festival — Burbank, Glendale, even downtown Los Angeles were considered. But Westwood, with its numerous theaters and walkability, not to mention scads of UCLA parking, was the obvious winner. Or at least obvious to Raddon, if not some of the local merchants who, after years of premieres and media screenings, were burnt out on film.
"When they thought of movies, they thought of premieres," Raddon says.
And that was a bad thing. For all its glamour, a premiere rarely helps local businesses because while it increases automotive traffic, it does not increase foot traffic. Those attending just park and get in line — they're not looking to grab a slice of pizza or do a bit of window shopping.
"Some store owners pulled out their sales records," says Raddon, "and said, 'Look, I can show you every night we had a premiere here because our business went down.' And it had."
Raddon explained that festival-goers tend to come for longer periods of time, that many would be spending days attending various events, with loads of time to kill in between.
"I told them how the festival would differ from the premieres, how it would increase foot traffic and their business and pretty soon they were all for it."
The festival organizers, meanwhile, discovered that local pride was in no way limited to cinephiles. When an early prototype for the festival banners came back, with "Westwood" inked in red, Raddon quickly learned that above all, Westwood is a college town.
"Red apparently was way too Trojan," he says, referring to the age-old rivalry between the UCLA Bruins and USC Trojans. It's the sort of issue the folks in Cannes or Toronto probably don't have to deal with, but the banners now proclaim "Westwood" in Bruin blue.
Relocating aside, it hasn't been particularly easy to grow a film festival in L.A. Like the Himalayas, long-standing events in Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Sundance have dominated the landscape while more boutique film festivals pop up every year — in Southern California alone, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Outfest in Los Angeles and myriad neighborhood knock-offs are all within a two-hour drive of each other. Hudson and her colleagues had to quickly figure out their brand, calculate where they could compete with older and more famous events, and where they could not.
One of the first things they did was lengthen the event to 11 days, with a schedule reflecting Hollywood work rhythms. At destination festivals such as Cannes and Toronto, screenings begin in the morning; in L.A., most are in the late afternoon. The also shifted from spring to summer, partly to, as Raddon puts it, "put the festive back in festival," with outdoor screenings, street theater, music and other non-celluloid events, but also to distance themselves, calendarwise, from the Sundance Film Festival, which has become the deal-making capital of American film festivals.
"We didn't want to compete in any way with Sundance for new American films," says Hudson. "Sundance has a lock and we have no desire to compete."
With a summer schedule, says Rachel Rosen, director of programming, Los Angeles can attract high-quality independent filmmakers who don't want to wait for Sundance in January or Toronto in September to premiere their films and who count on L.A. to give them more attention than they might receive at other festivals, assuming they could get in.
The film festival circuit is an increasingly competitive place. While digital technology created more "independent filmmakers," the quality films produced each year remain a small, sought-after percentage. Rosen spends much of her year traveling from one festival to another, keeping an eye out for new trends and, more important, looking for new filmmakers to whom she will explain the benefits of competing, or just showing in Los Angeles.
"We have a good relationship with Toronto and Sundance," Rosen says. "They, like us, prefer to premiere movies but sometimes we make compromises."
Timing is precisely why screenwriter, actress and producer Jennifer Westfeldt says she insisted on premiering "Ira and Abby," a romantic comedy about a mismatched marriage, in L.A.
"When you have a film that is at all topical or zeitgeist-y," she says, "you want people to see it sooner rather than later."
Westfeldt also considers L.A. her lucky festival — five years ago, "Kissing Jessica Stein," a film she co-wrote and starred in, was picked up by Fox Searchlight after they saw it in L.A. "It's nice to come back to where it began," she says.
Writer-director Sara Kelly says she was determined to premiere "The Lather Effect" at the L.A. Film Festival, in part because the movie, about a group of thirtysomethings trying to recapture the '80s, is very L.A.-specific. She has high hopes of getting a distributor here, "because all the buyers live here, after all." She has also submitted the film to Toronto where, should it be accepted, it would not get premiere treatment because of its appearance in L.A.
"It was a conscious decision," she says. "And not everyone agreed with it. Probably Toronto is a little sexier, but I am an L.A. filmmaker and I want to help make this festival one of the best in the world."
About 1,600 feature-length films were submitted this year, of which 100 or so films were chosen.
"We don't have 400 films so the filmmakers know we're going to work with them," says Rosen. "When we started, we were small because we had to be small but now I have really seen the advantage."
And because Los Angeles has yet to build the reputation for deal-making that Sundance has, the Oscar predictive patina of Toronto or the international frenzy that is Cannes, the festival organizers concentrate on the resources at hand — geographical proximity to stars and dealmakers, and also L.A.'s reputation for putting on a good show.
"We try to event-ize the films," says Raddon. A documentary on live gamers, for example, will be publicized by a Dungeons and Dragons-type sword fight on Broxton Avenue; another on New Orleans musicians will feature live music by some of the participants. After a June 30 premiere of Sony Animation's big-budget summer movie "Monster House" at the John Anson Ford Ampitheatre, there will be a "Family Day" on July 1, with various kid-friendly activities and films.
Likewise, the premiere of "Who Killed the Electric Car" will be packaged with an outdoor screening of "An Inconvenient Truth" at the California Plaza downtown and turn Saturday into "Green Day," with a themed party and various ambient events.
This last development was conjured from thin air less than three weeks before opening day, sending festival producer Diana Zahn-Story and her team scurrying around Westwood, scouting locations for the party. Zahn-Story is used to last-minute changes and ideas, though this year is made more complicated by the new location.
"Normally it's easier to be flexible because you have all the basic details in place," she says. "But this year we have to figure out everything, down to the signage pointing to the bathrooms, so it's a little hectic."
She, along with a dozen other staff members, was standing around the pool at the W hotel recently figuring out the stage placement and seating for the Spirit of Independence Awards ceremony to be held next Thursday, at which winners for best narrative film and best documentary will also be announced.
This is also where the festival's three "Poolside Chats," covering fashion, politics and the art of photography, will take place (although because of the awards show, most will be on the terrace overlooking the pool, making them Poolside-Adjacent Chats.) This year's participants include filmmakers Hany Abu-Assad ("Paradise Now"), Dean Devlin ("Independence Day"); costume designer Louise Mingenbach ("The Usual Suspects," "X-Men") and photographers Michael Childers and John Stoddart, along with actresses Jacqueline Bisset and Sally Kellerman.
For Rosen, the ability to draw big-name actors, directors and producers for small gatherings is one of the most remarkable things L.A can offer. All of the events are open to the public; anyone can purchase a ticket to a Coffee Talk and hear screenwriter Brian Helgeland discuss screenwriting or talk about the acting life with Joe Mantegna.
"In San Francisco, or any other city for that matter, you get someone like Jodie Foster [who participated in a 2003 Coffee Talk] to show up and you have to have a black-tie event," she says. "Here they sit and chat to each other and it's very intimate and natural."