The fastest-selling screening at the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival requires a solemn vow — the Secret Screening. It's a film presentation so secret that audience members are asked to sign a promise that they won't talk about the film until it's released theatrically.
"We sell out every year in advance," said the film festival's artistic director, Helen du Toit. "It's like a grab bag. Nobody knows what it is until the credits roll. They love it."
Last year's Secret Screening was "Ida," the award-winning Polish drama directed by Pawel Pawlikowski that is one of the nine films shortlisted for the foreign language Oscar.
The popularity of the Secret Screening illustrates the adventurous cinematic nature of the audiences who attend the festival for its eclectic programming and commitment to screening award-winning, challenging and demanding new foreign-language films.
The 26th edition of the festival, which begins Friday and continues through Jan. 12, will feature 192 films from 65 countries, including 65 premieres, among which are 33 U.S. debuts.
The festival opens with Ava DuVernay's Golden Globe-nominated "Selma," the historical drama about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his effort to secure equal voting rights in 1965. "Selma" opened in limited release on Christmas Day but won't be going nationwide until Jan. 9. The closing night program is Francois Girard's "Boychoir," an uplifting drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Kathy Bates.
David Oyelowo, who plays King in "Selma," is also one of the honorees of the festival's awards gala Saturday evening at the Palm Springs Convention Center. Also being honored this year are other Oscar hopefuls such as directors Richard Linklater and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and actors Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons, Robert Duvall, Eddie Redmayne, Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon and the cast of "The Imitation Game."
"Ida" is also making a return visit to the festival as part of the Awards Buzz program, which this year features 50 of the 83 submissions for the foreign-language Oscar, including eight that have been shortlisted. In addition to "Ida," the other shortlisted foreign films are "Wild Tales" (Argentina), "Tangerines" (Estonia), "Corn Island" (Georgia), "Timbuktu" (Mauritania/France), "Accused" (Netherlands), "Leviathan" (Russia) and "Force Majeure" (Sweden).
"Tangerines," which also screened last year at the festival, was "in our top 10 audience films," Du Toit said. "Often, the films that score very well with our audience are strong predictors of what is going to score well with [film] academy voters."
A jury of international critics will watch the 50 movies to name the FIPRESCI Award for foreign language film of the year, actor and actress.
A majority of the directors whose films are in the festival will make appearances and will attend a private retreat.
Festival director Darryl Macdonald noted that in the last few years, "there has been a huge explosion of talent emerging from all over the world, in particular focused on regions like Eastern Europe, Latin America and, for that matter, the Arab world."
Every year, the festival spotlights a country or region "that is making extraordinary strides or we see a preponderance of exciting new talent," he said.
This year, the Another Europe series spotlights central and Eastern European films, many made by first- or second-time directors. Among the pictures featured are "Cowboys" (Croatia), "In the Crosswind" (Estonia), "No One's Child" (Serbia), "White God" (Hungary) and "The Tribe" (Ukraine), which is performed entirely in sign language without subtitles.
Macdonald believes one of the reasons for this new wave of filmmaking in the region is access to digital technology. "What is most remarkable is we are seeing across the board, international films are better made now," he noted.
"It's true even in this country, in the American independent field, because of this cheaper access to new technologies that helps making a movie so much more accessible and so much easier to make a really quality-looking film."
But even more remarkable, Macdonald said, is that the "storytelling prowess is finally catching up with the technology prowess."
"One of the most striking things about Another Europe is that a large number of these filmmakers are approaching storytelling in more vital ways — they are eschewing genres or blending genres," he added.
The festival is also showcasing some 30 English-language independent films, including "Effie Gray" with Emma Thompson and Dakota Fanning, "Learning to Drive" with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, "Song One" with Anne Hathaway and "Walter" with William H. Macy.
The festival attracted a record-breaking 135,000 patrons last January. Many attendees have been coming for years.
"What is most remarkable about that is 70% of [the audience] is outside of the Coachella Valley," said Macdonald. "So people literally come to this festival as a destination from all over the country."
And the demographic is evolving. "More and more young people are coming every year, and we hope to speed up that process," Macdonald added.
Besides getting the word out in social media and on its website, the festival has established showcases this year to appeal to a younger audience. The Breaking Waves series, said Du Toit, highlights "all of the films that are of interest to a younger demographic. There are a huge number of them."
Among those are "Backcountry" (Canada), the documentary "Ballet Boys" (Norway), "Mommy" (Canada) and "Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha" (U.S.), starring James Franco.
Meanwhile, After Dark, a new late-night program, features such horror films and chillers as "Goodnight Mommy" (Austria) and "It Follows" (U.S.). The films will also screen during the day.
For the last seven years, the festival has also held a student screening day at Palm Springs High School's auditorium. Some 1,100 students from the Coachella Valley get the opportunity to see two movies. This year, the festival is screening the acclaimed documentary "Keep on Keepin' On," about a legendary trumpet player who mentors a young blind jazz pianist, and the award-winning drama "Natural Sciences" (Argentina).
"We bring the directors in to talk to the students," said Du Toit. "The kids go nuts."
And perhaps in a few years, some of those students will be regular festivalgoers eagerly signing the nondisclosure document before the Secret Screening unspools.
Among the festival highlights:
Opening/closing: Ava DuVernay's Golden Globe-nominated "Selma" opens the festival Friday night; François Girard's "Boychoir," starring Dustin Hoffman, closes the festivities.
Awards gala: Oscar hopefuls including Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, J.K. Simmons, the cast of "The Imitation Game" and "Selma's" David Oyelowo are among this year's honorees at the gala that takes place at the Palm Springs Convention Center.
Awards buzz: The showcase features 50 of the 83 films that were submitted for the foreign-language Oscar, including eight of the nine features to be shortlisted. Among those are "Ida," "Wild Tales," "Tangerines," "Timbuktu" and "Force Majeure."
"Modern Masters": This section features 12 films from such acclaimed directors as Barry Levinson ("The Humbling"), John Boorman ("Queen and Country"), Albert Maysles ("Iris"), Denys Arcand ("An Eye for Beauty") and Olivier Assayas ("Clouds of Sils Maria").
"Another Europe": A celebration of contemporary Central and Eastern European cinema features such films as "The Japanese Dog," "Afterlife" and "Fair Play."
"After Dark": A new night program that features a slate of edgier horror/chiller fare including "It Follows."
"New Voices/New Visions": This program features a selection of 10 films from first-time feature filmmakers. The films are looking for U.S. distribution and will screen for a jury of distributors. Among the films are "Chubby" (Switzerland) and "Grand Street" (U.S.).
"Breaking Waves": A showcase of films that appeal to a younger demographic, including "Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha," starring James Franco.
"True Stories": The documentary section features such films as "Ballet Boys" (Norway) and "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey" (U.S.).
"World Cinema Now": An eclectic array of 74 films from 36 countries.