In the hopes of finding the next indie film breakout, Hollywood heavyweights annually weather the bitter cold of Park City, Utah, and fly thousands of miles to the South of France. But persuading those same movie executives to brave traffic from the Westside to downtown for a screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival? Good luck.
"It's hard to convince industry eyes to take us seriously and make the drive from Beverly Hills," said Stephanie Allain, who has been the director of the festival for three years.
But the film gathering is in its 20th year, and Allain is determined to raise its profile. When the festival began in 1995 at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, 5,700 people turned up to check out its 33 offerings. Two decades later, LAFF is expecting over 90,000 patrons and will be screening nearly 200 features, shorts and music videos, mostly at downtown's L.A. Live.
The event — which kicks off Wednesday evening with the North American premiere of Bong Joon-ho's post-apocalyptic "Snowpiercer" — has managed to attract so many eyeballs in part because it spotlights commercial as well as more obscure fare.
This year, for instance, Clint Eastwood will walk the red carpet to launch his adaptation of the Broadway musical "Jersey Boys," which is being released by Warner Bros. this month. But LAFF will also showcase far more eclectic movies, like "Giuseppe Makes a Movie," a documentary about an eccentric former child actor who now makes movies in his Venice trailer park.
And yet because the festival falls in June — months after the Utah fest and before the fall awards season hopefuls bow — it hasn't always earned respect from indie tastemakers. David Ansen, the festival's artistic director, said he tried to book numerous films at LAFF that "decided to wait for their festival launch in the fall" at Telluride, Colo., or Toronto. Meanwhile, there have been but a few notable acquisitions out of LAFF in recent years, including the emergency room documentary "Code Black" and Richard Linklater's black comedy "Bernie."
"We have to do better than that," acknowledged Allain, who is also a film producer — her "Dear White People," a satire about racial identity on a college campus, is a festival selection. "It's not good enough to sell a film every once in a while. So we have to plant our flag with where our strengths are. We're not an established market yet, but I want to become the place where you go to sell your L.A. movie."
So Allain this year created L.A. Muse, a section she curated along with film critic Elvis Mitchell and Bryn Mawr College professor Roya Rastegar that features 11 films either shot, set or inspired by the city. L.A. pops up in so many movies, the festival director believes, because it is not only topographically but ethnically diverse — "plus, it has a lore and mystique to it. Dreams come true or they're dashed here."
The program features one of Allain's favorite movies in the festival, "Nightingale," a drama starring David Oyelowo as a troubled man who is worried about reuniting with his old Army comrade. It also includes "Echo Park," a romance about a Beverly Hills girl who moves to the Eastside to reinvent herself after a bad breakup. Starring Mamie Gummer and former "Ellen" DJ Tony Okungbowa, the movie spotlights some of the neighborhood's beloved hangs, including Chango Coffee Shop, Elysian Park and Origami, a vinyl record shop.
"I used to joke with my friends that if I lived in Echo Park, I'd probably rather date somebody who lived in New York than on the Westside," said Amanda Marsalis, an Echo Park resident who directed the film. "Your life in a neighborhood can become very insular and really shape who you are."
This week, Marsalis and three dozen other filmmakers whose work will be part of the festival traveled to Palm Springs for a LAFF-hosted retreat. The festival's emphasis on creating community among its collaborators is one of its most distinctive attributes, said Ansen.
"Our festival is extremely filmmaker-friendly — people never feel like they don't know where they are, or they're isolated," said Ansen, whose festival is presented by the nonprofit arts organization Film Independent, which offers workshops, training and events throughout the year. "The retreat is very loose and off the record, and word spreads as a result that you might have a better time here than you would at another festival."
The festival, which is co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times and runs for nine days, also offers a number of quirky talks and events aimed at non-cinephiles. The creators behind Beyoncé's latest visual album will gather to screen and discuss the short films, comedians Key & Peele will sit for a conversation with Mitchell and composer Atticus Ross will participate in a master class.
"Being downtown, we have a young, diverse audience with good energy," said Ansen, noting that nearly 70% of last year's attendees were between ages 18 and 35. "Slowly, we're starting to gain respect from the Hollywood establishment, too — they're recognizing the value of the festival as a launching pad."
For the starry-eyed, plenty of celebrities will be on hand: Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris will show up for the "Snowpiercer" debut, Teresa Palmer has two films in the festival — "The Ever After" and "Cut Bank" — and Emmy Rossum will be promoting "Comet," a relationship drama in which she stars opposite Justin Long.
Of course, LAFF organizers are hopeful that festival-goers who turn up to stargaze will also be inspired to head into movies that aren't headlined by recognizable names. Among the hidden gems Ansen recommends are the German documentary "The Great Museum," about the staff at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and "Man From Reno," a noir mystery thriller half in Japanese, half in English.
Los Angeles Film Festival
When: Wednesday -June 19
Where: Primarily L.A. Live; special events at LACMA, Luxe City Center Hotel, California Plaza and Union Station
Tickets: Individual tickets range from no cost to $20; passes from $255 to $2,500
Parking: $10 a day, West Parking Garage