Los Angeles Film Festival reboots with focus on discovery, world premieres

A reinvigorated #LAFilmFest takes a deep dive into the well of fresh voices and undiscovered talent

With a new programming team and revitalized sense of purpose, the Los Angeles Film Festival launches its 21st edition Wednesday with a reinvigorated mission. As a challenge to organizers and audiences alike, the festival is regrounding itself as a showcase for new, untested work.

In part due to its place on the calendar, the festival has in the past struggled to maintain a firm identity, fighting for titles between earlier launching pads such as Sundance and Cannes but before the fall circuit that includes Telluride and Toronto. Rather than feel stuck with second-tier choices or other fest's castoffs, organizers this year have chosen to dig deep in discovering fresh voices and undiscovered talent.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Los Angeles Film Festival: In the June 10 Calendar section, two articles about the Los Angeles Film Festival referred to events as taking place at Microsoft Theater and said that the theater was formerly known as L.A. Live. The former name of Microsoft Theater was Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, and in fact LAFF events are taking place at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, not Microsoft Theater.
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The festival is presenting 45 world premieres — more than half its feature slate — with more than 80% of the program by first- or second-time directors. Looking to give further voice to diverse perspectives, nearly 40% of the films in the festival were directed by women and nearly 30% directed by people of color. There is also a deepened emphasis on films exploring the layers of experience in the city itself.

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"I'm one of those people who like to rearrange the furniture in my house," said festival director Stephanie Allain, a producer and former studio executive. "I think that's why I Iike first-time directors: It's so fresh."

The festival, sponsored by The Times and others, opens Wednesday night with the Los Angeles premiere of Paul Weitz's "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin. Though it may feel like the festival has hit the reset button on its identity, organizers emphasize that they are trying to realign the event with what its sponsor organization, Film Independent, does year-round in programming at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, filmmaker education and grant programs and the Spirit Awards.

Rather than another premiere, the festival will close on June 18 with one of the Live Read script readings that have become a signature part of Film Independent's programming throughout the year. Filmmaker Eli Roth will cast and direct a reading of the screenplay to the 1982 film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," directed by Amy Heckerling and written by Cameron Crowe.

"How do you get people to come to a festival of discovery?" asked Film Independent President Josh Welsh. "On some level, it is not difficult to find good work from amazing filmmakers of diverse backgrounds. We see it year-round in our labs, at LACMA and at the Spirit Awards. And when people ask how do you find it, I just tell them we've been looking.

"If diversity, innovation and uniqueness of vision are your filters, there is an abundance of great stuff to find," he added.

Largely without the hooks of celebrity or recognizable names that festivals often use to get people in the door, there is a risk that presenting this much new work could confuse and overwhelm potential audiences. So festival organizers were relieved to see that ticket sales ahead of the festival were up more than 30% from last year.

"There's an accessible, energetic vibe to the films this year. I don't know how else to describe it," said associate director of programming Roya Rastegar. "I feel so validated by the ticket sales. 'Oh, we're not crazy.' These are actually films people want to see."

"Because you never really know, are there not going to be any really strong films? Are people right, are there really not films by female directors? Do black people really not make films?" Rastegar added, "Those kinds of doubts do creep up in the early part of the programming process."

The realignment actually began at the festival last year with the creation of a section called L.A. Muse, meant to spotlight films set or shot in the city itself. This year the section is back with 10 films, all world premieres, including Christopher Chambers' "Aram Aram," Zoe Cassavetes' "Day Out of Days," Renee Tajima-Peña's "No Más Bebés" (No More Babies) and Stephen Pierce Ringer's "Weepah Way for Now."

"You really can't reinvent a film festival. But you can make it more compatible to the city," said Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell. "The idea of Los Angeles, you go to film festivals around the world and you see films from Los Angeles. Why weren't we just reaching out to the people in our own backyard and making them more involved? That just seemed a logical thing."

Mitchell, along with Allain, organized many of the festival's more high-profile or celeb-heavy events, such as the gala presentations of "Final Girls," "Seoul Searching" and the upcoming television series "Scream." There will be a conversation between Mitchell and director Jonathan Demme with a preview of his upcoming "Ricki and the Flash," starring Meryl Streep.

The newly created Buzz section spotlights higher-profile films from other festivals, such as "Brand: A Second Coming," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "The Overnight."

Other new sections this year include one called Zeitgeist, for American independent work, and Nightfall, for genre-oriented films. A section called Launch is being introduced for digital works. The bulk of the festival's program was overseen by Rastegar and senior programmer Jennifer Cochis. The pair had previously worked together at the Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary "Can You Dig This," playing as part of the L.A. Muse section, is an examination of the movement of urban gardening told through a handful of stories centered on South Los Angeles. "I'm really ecstatic to have something that is focused particularly on Los Angeles in a festival in Los Angeles," said director Delila Vallot of premiering the film for a hometown crowd.

The festival organizers voiced hopes that local filmmakers will be able to organize their own support networks to make each screening its own event.

"It just feels like the right place," said Dennis Hauck, writer and director of U.S. fiction competition entry "Too Late." "This is probably the only time we can get all the cast together in one place. We probably would not have been able to do that at any other festival."

Though the main hub of the festival is downtown's Regal Cinemas, the premiere screening of "Too Late," starring Oscar-nominated actor John Hawkes as a private investigator piecing together the story of a missing woman, is taking place at LACMA.

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FOR THE RECORD

A previous version of this article said that LAFF is at Microsoft Theater (formerly L.A. Live). That is the venue previously called Nokia Theatre L.A. Live. The film festival is at Regal Cinemas.

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Though why any given film does or doesn't play a given festival can be a saga of politics and drama big and small, pulling together a program so heavily weighted toward discovery and world premieres meant that the programming team was looking to get away from the cycle of films that play at festival after festival like a herd on the move. In part the challenge became not only finding the films they wanted to show but also holding out against accepting films that were more easy and obvious to get.

Cochis said that once they had their programming goals in place, it was then a difficult part of the process to not cave in to pressures to accept certain films being pushed on them by distributors or sales agents.

"If we get to have one crack at starting over, this was the moment to redefine our position with the industry," said Cochis. "I think maybe next year the conversations will be easier. This year was a big learning experience for us, and I think it was a learning experience for all our friends and colleagues who had different expectations of what this festival might have been."

The fruition of that work, and the new direction for the Los Angeles Film Festival, will play out in the dark as audiences have a chance to engage with the movies.

"For most people, going to a movie you know nothing about is a completely unusual thing," said Mitchell. "So many people now, you see what you want to see after you read a tweet about it or hear about it on Snapchat. That idea of sitting in a room with a bunch of people you don't know seeing something you don't know for the very first time, that's a part of a film festival that most of the world doesn't experience."

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