While scouting movies for this year's Los Angeles Film Festival, organizers got accustomed to having awkward conversations with agents, managers and studio executives.
"We'd tell them, 'Our priority is presenting diverse points of view,' and there was an uncomfortable silence," festival director Stephanie Allain said. "They'd say, 'Well, we don't have any female directors, and we don't have any directors of color.'"
That's the kind of response Hollywood usually gives when pressed about opening up its directing ranks to more women and minorities. But it didn't satisfy the LAFF leaders, who instead went on their own talent hunt, which involved delving deeper into unusual sources and actively seeking unconventional points of view.
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"You'd be surprised how many people look at you and say, 'Oh, I get it, you're just giving people a break,'" said Allain, who championed the 1991 John Singleton movie "Boyz n the Hood" while a production executive at Columbia and produced the recent independent films "Beyond the Lights" and "Dear White People," both from African American directors.
"This is the big lie, that if I'm going to hire a woman or a person of color, I'm going to have to compromise, that I'm doing it to check the diversity box."
LAFF, which opens Wednesday and runs through June 18 at downtown's Regal Cinemas, magnified its emphasis on diversity for this year's festival. The result is a slate with 40% of the feature films directed by women and nearly 30% by people of color. (LAFF does not include its foreign films in the tally of nonwhite directors.)
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 in the downtown entertainment complex.
Those statistics stand in stark contrast to the wider film industry, where women directed 4.6% of major studio movies in 2014, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, and minorities directed 12.2% of films in 2011, according to a UCLA study. It's also far more than many other festivals, such as the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, where two of this year's 19 competition films were directed by women.
"The standard gatekeepers have not reached the point where diversity is something they're actively looking for," said Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, the nonprofit arts organization that organizes LAFF. "Whether it's unconscious bias or something else, they have their habitual ways of sourcing new talent and new stories, and those filmmakers are not making it in."
Studio executives often say the pool of available talent is small — there aren't as many women and minorities who have directed projects of the budget and scope required to take on large studio films. But LAFF organizers say they achieved their unusually diverse slate by casting a wide net to find talented female and minority filmmakers.
The first step to finding those filmmakers, Allain said, was enlisting a broad group of 40 people to screen the thousands of films that were submitted.
"You need diversity among your screeners, because what you value is what you know," she said. "When people watch a film and identify with it, they say, 'This is a good film.' When the perspective veers away from that, people think it isn't good.
"When you look at the way film critics review films directed by women, for example, sometimes they just don't get it. We told our screeners, 'Look for people who are seeing the world differently.'"
Among the filmmakers they found were Daphne McWilliams, a black producer making her directing debut with the documentary "In a Perfect World," about men who were raised by single mothers, and Renee Tajima-Peña, a Japanese American woman whose movie "No Más Bebés" chronicles accusations of forced sterilization of Latinas at L.A. County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and '70s.
Programmers also scanned the trade press, tracked future projects of actors and cinematographers they knew and relied on their own relationships with talent to find directors from different backgrounds. LAFF senior programmer Jennifer Cochis, a producer of the 2012 film "Smashed," reached out to a friend, Native American director Sterlin Harjo, and persuaded him to premiere his next film, "Mekko," set in Tulsa, Okla., at the festival.
The goal was to have fewer of what organizers considered "festival films." Asked what that meant exactly, Cochis explained, "They usually have a lot of flannel."
But the diversity focus meant relying less on what many other festivals use as a marker of success: booking famous names. And it means that 80% of the 81 features come from either first- or second-time directors.
"Because we're in L.A. and this town is full of creatives, we don't have to have a festival full of stars," said Roya Rastegar, LAFF's associate director of film programming and curated content. "We can be a festival that's about finding new talent."
The industry is apt to be open to that talent, Allain said, as recent successes like the Fox TV show "Empire," with its primarily black cast and black co-creator Lee Daniels, and the movie "Pitch Perfect 2," directed by Elizabeth Banks, have shown the economic virtue of hiring minorities and women.
"'Should do' never works," Allain said. "People in the business are motivated by what's going to make money."
Film festivals have often provided a pathway for white male directors who went on to make big-budget studio movies — after Colin Trevorrow's first feature, "Safety Not Guaranteed," made a splash at Sundance in 2012, Universal hired him to direct its effects-driven summer movie "Jurassic World," and after Mark Webb's first feature, "(500) Days of Summer," premiered there in 2009, Sony selected him to reboot its Spider-Man franchise.
LAFF sees itself as a venue for studios to expand the pool of people who make those kinds of movies.
"The primary gatekeepers are film festival programmers," Rastegar said. "It's really urgent that festivals take this approach of seeing things differently because we're the pipeline for films to get seen and distributed."