You wouldn’t think it’d be too difficult to maintain a thriving independent film festival in one of the world’s biggest and most iconic movie cities, a so-called “company town” whose inhabitants are assumed to live and breathe cinema as few others do. But Wednesday’s announcement that the Film Independent-run Los Angeles Film Festival would be shuttering after 18 years has demonstrated the opposite.
It is, in fact, all too easy for a sprawling metropolis already stuffed to the gills with entertainment coverage, industry and media screenings and Oscar-season festivities week in and week out to take one of its flagship events for granted.
In Los Angeles, casual and professional moviegoers alike have ready access to new independent, foreign-language and documentary offerings and quality retrospectives every week, and there is never a shortage of talented filmmakers and stars willing to show up to promote their movies. From its inception in 1995 as the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, LAFF had to work extra-hard to establish its program as an annual must-see.
Of course, many festivals happily still operating in Los Angeles have grappled with this challenge, including the AFI Film Festival, Outfest, COLCOA, Dances With Films and the L.A. Latino International Film Festival (recently reinstated this year after a five-year hiatus.) Whichever communities they serve, quite a few of these events can consider their role that much more vital in the wake of LAFF’s departure.
While fest fatigue and audience complacency surely played their part, the L.A. Film Festival faced its own Rubik’s cube of logistical difficulties, including budgetary challenges and oft-cited issues of timing and location. In recent years, festival organizers attempted to address these with a series of sometimes whiplash-inducing course corrections, changing venues, dates and mandates in a way that only made it more difficult for the festival to build an identity and an audience.
The most recent of these took effect this year when the festival shifted from its longtime June berth to a mid-September slot, right on the heels of major festivals like Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Repositioning LAFF in the thick of the busy fall awards season, the logic went, would surely prove advantageous and possibly turn up the heat on its biggest local rival, the Hollywood-based AFI Fest, which is held every November and often benefits from showing late-breaking Oscar contenders.
There were reasons to be hopeful, but the decision to move into an already crowded calendar space ultimately didn’t do LAFF any favors. Nor did it add luster to the lineup, which offered few of the high-profile titles some were expecting (Ike Barinholtz’s “The Oath” and Rupert Everett’s “The Happy Prince” notwithstanding) and did little to restore confidence in the festival as an international showcase.
The move to September also shook up an event that, in 2016, just two years earlier, had relocated to ArcLight Cinemas in Culver City after spending six years at downtown’s Regal Cinemas L.A. Live complex; before that, it had been based for many years in Westwood. The festival’s inability to settle on a permanent home may have put it at a disadvantage, but it also bears out the simple realities of living and working in Los Angeles, which is too broad and decentralized for any one hub to appeal to everyone. Any successful local event is inevitably plagued by complaints over traffic and parking, as LAFF was during its Westwood and downtown years.
It’s too easy, in other words, to blame L.A.’s sprawl and traffic for the festival’s failure. A strong event isn’t defined by its location but by its program. The strongest editions of LAFF possessed a sharp curatorial sensibility — a globally aware, intellectually and aesthetically adventurous approach to programming with a passion not just for new American voices, but for important filmmakers around the globe.
For the better part of 18 years that curatorial rigor was upheld, with remarkable integrity and continuity, by a pool of superb, since-departed programming talent that included Rachel Rosen, David Ansen, Doug Jones and Maggie Mackay. Among the virtues of their approach was a refusal to invest too much significance in “world premiere” status, recognizing — in contrast with subsequent festival leadership — that a good film is a good film no matter how many other festivals it may have already played.
They also understood that, while a gala premiere of a summer blockbuster like “Transformers” may be a necessary commercial evil, the festival had a much more essential mission — which is to say, a rare opportunity — to serve an audience of savvy and impassioned L.A. cinephiles excited to see the new film by Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt, Hong Sang-soo or Jia Zhangke.
You would be hard pressed to find filmmakers of that global stature at LAFF in the years following Ansen’s 2014 departure as artistic director, at which point the festival shifted gears and began to prioritize world premieres while deemphasizing its international focus. In recent years, the festival has touted its high percentages of new films directed by women and people of color, positioning itself as an early platform for change in the industry’s bid for greater diversity and inclusiveness — a worthy ambition that, unfortunately, resulted in a program that few buzz-seeking movie fans or discerning cinephiles wanted to see.
After hearing the news on Wednesday, I was a bit overwhelmed to realize just how many precious LAFF memories I had amassed over the years. I still remember checking out the then-Westwood-based festival for the first time in 2005 and stumbling on a little drama called “Islander,” which hasn’t been widely seen since but lives on in my memory as a lovely, melancholy standout. In 2013 I attended the premiere of Grace Lee’s “American Revolutionary,” a stirring documentary about the legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs (no relation), whose post-screening Q&A was so inspiring as to stun the audience into admiring silence.
I recall staggering out of Raúl Ruiz’s epic “Mysteries of Lisbon” in 2011, screened in a packed house that had been held rapt for more than four hours, and doubting whether I’d see anything better all year. A few years later, in 2014, I was honored to serve on the festival’s documentary competition jury with filmmaker Margaret Brown and editor Lynzee Klingman. We gave our top prize to Debra Granik’s “Stray Dog,” still one of the least-seen great nonfiction works of recent years.
It is hard to revisit even a few of these memories and not mourn the fact that Los Angeles, for all that it still offers a community of movie lovers, no longer has a robust namesake event to call its own. It was heartening to learn that Film Independent plans to retain certain LAFF-based programs and events and keep them going on a year-round basis. It’s also heartening, if bittersweet, to look ahead to next week’s kickoff of AFI Fest, which has weathered its own share of upheaval in recent months, and which happily continues to offer the kind of artistically robust program that LAFF itself once embraced.
This may be an enormous city with a crowded calendar, but we overlook our hometown treasures at our peril.