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Revamped Los Angeles Film Festival opens with an aim to 'bring diversity to the mainstream'

Revamped Los Angeles Film Festival opens with an aim to 'bring diversity to the mainstream'
Gael Garcia Bernal stars in the movie "Desierto." (Carlos Somonte / STX Productions)

When the Los Angeles Film Festival announced plans to move from its hub in Westwood to downtown L.A. six years ago, the news was met with skepticism. Would industry types deign to venture east for more than a fancy meal or a Lakers game?

It took a while, but the plan eventually worked. Last June, about 90,000 attended the annual nine-day event, which is produced by the nonprofit group Film Independent and sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. And yet, despite the success, the festival is on the move again.

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This time, it's headed back west -- well, sort of. The festival, which kicks off Wednesday, will host its screenings at a slew of Arclight Cinemas across the region. Though the opening-night film "Lowriders" -- about the culture surrounding the souped-up cars -- will premiere at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, the majority of the action will take place at the Arclight in Culver City.

Confused? Don't be, insists festival director Stephanie Allain, who has run LAFF since 2012. If you want to come to the fest, your best bet is to head to Culver City, which she notes is close to a Metro stop and a handful of new restaurants.

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"It really wasn't a big decision. Culver City just feels more us. It's got a great artistic vibe," says Allain. "Downtown was pretty corporate, with the [Microsoft] Theater and all of the big spaces. And people still had issues with trying to get there during rush hour or on a Friday night."

Los Angeles, of course, is a famously difficult place to host a film festival. The city’s other prominent movie gathering, AFI Fest, is held every November at a few locations on Hollywood Boulevard, where it has to contend with hordes of tourists. And unlike festivals held in more remote locations such as Park City, Utah, and Telluride, Colo., L.A.-based fests are fighting for the attention of Angelenos who also have the option of heading to a premiere, concert or play.

"It's very competitive," admits Allain. "But every year that goes by, our identity becomes more and more apparent. And that will continue to bring people to the festival."

So what is that identity, exactly? That's a question LAFF has grappled with over the last few years. In 2014, artistic director David Ansen was replaced by Elvis Mitchell, who stepped into a newly created curator role. During Ansen's tenure, the festival welcomed a mix of bigger-budget studio films (Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" -- yes, seriously) and eclectic foreign fare from little-known filmmakers. But in 2015, Allain decided to take the festival in a different direction, prizing diversity over star power.

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Because of its slot in the calendar year -- right after Cannes but well before award-centric Toronto -- LAFF has struggled to book the flashiest independent film titles. Instead of scrambling to book movies that had already premiered elsewhere, last year Allain decided to shift the festival’s mission, focusing on giving undiscovered female filmmakers and directors of color a showcase.

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Of course, this was a risk. If you know Channing Tatum is going to walk the red carpet at your film festival, tickets are probably going to go fast -- at least for one night, anyway.

"But for new films where people don't know the stars? That was one of our big concerns," says Allain.

As it turned out, stargazing didn’t seem to matter much to festivalgoers. Ticket sales increased 30% in 2015, according to Allain, and nearly 30 films were acquired from the festival, including Baron Davis’ documentary, “The Drew,” which went to Showtime.

Ticket sales also may have increased, Allain says, because so many of the LAFF filmmakers are based locally -- meaning their families, friends and co-workers are eager to show up. But she also believes there's something larger at play going on in the film industry: Movie stars don't matter anymore. Nowadays, film fans prize beloved characters above the actors playing them – just look at the two top-grossing movies this year, "Captain America: Civil War" and "The Jungle Book" – meaning LAFF's story-driven movies may have a better chance of finding an audience.

"My theory is that people are hungry for authentic stories," says Allain, "and don't give a [hoot] if there's a movie star in a film."

There will be some stars in attendance: On Friday, John Krasinski will present the family drama "The Hollars," which he directed, and Gael Garcia Bernal will be on hand for Jonás Cuarón's closing-night immigration thriller "Desierto" on June 9. Ryan Coogler, who directed "Creed," and Nate Parker, the filmmaker behind the much-buzzed about fall release "Birth of a Nation," will also participate in festival conversations.

Still, with few recognizable names in the lineup, it can be difficult for attendees to decide what to see. Allain's recommendations? "Tracktown," co-written, co-directed and starring future Olympian Alexi Pappas as a runner who twists her ankle. "It's very meta," says Allain. "Actors train to be runners or boxers, but this is so authentic. You can really see a voice there."

'Tracktown'
'Tracktown' (LAFF)

Because of the upcoming Summer Games and the U.S. presidential election, festival organizers saw an increase in submissions exploring sports and politics. Allain's other pick, the documentary "Political Animals," follows four California state lawmakers -- led by the openly gay Sheila Kuehl -- as they battle homophobia while fighting for legislation to protect LGBT schoolchildren against bullying.

"Our identity is to bring diversity to the mainstream," says the festival director. "I get calls from agents going, 'Oh my God, I've got a filmmaker who would be great in the festival: John Smith!' And I say, 'Dude, what women directors do you have?' Either they don't and are like 'Boy, I better go find some,' or they do, and they just lead with the white dude. So you can't just say you want diversity -- you have to take the active steps to make it happen."

Twitter: @AmyKinLA

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