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Hollywood Film Festival to tackle social issues under new owner

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The Hollywood Film Festival boasts an enviable name, one that directly invokes the entertainment capital of the world, but since its founding in 1997, it has struggled to carve out a niche for itself among the thousands of film fests worldwide and the dozens in the Southland alone.

Now the festival's new owner is trying to build an identity that lives up to the moniker, though not by way of glitz and glamour.

This month, film festival veteran Jon Fitzgerald and his company CineCause acquired the HFF from founder Carlos de Abreu, a Mozambique-born Portuguese entrepreneur, as part of an ambitious plan to turn it into a premier showcase of socially conscious movies. In a crowded festival landscape, he has his work cut out for him.

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"It's truly going to be anchored by social-impact cinema and the idea of film as a tool to create change," Fitzgerald said of the festival in a recent phone interview from his office in Marina del Rey.

This year's HFF, which takes place Oct. 16-19, will be based at the ArcLight Hollywood and will showcase socially conscious documentary and narrative films with screenings, Q&As and calls to action. The latter might include supporting charities, signing petitions or spreading the word about a particular cause. Specific films have yet to be confirmed.

In addition, the festival will debut a Global Summit for Good, in which industry players, filmmakers and social causes will gather for presentations, discussions and technology demos.

The HFF will also continue to promote the local filmmaking industry, having last year introduced the programming section Celebrating Hollywood, which highlighted films that either were shot in Los Angeles or reference show business. Film L.A., the office that processes film permits in L.A., will return as a festival sponsor as well.

Another goal this year will be to connect emerging filmmakers with new and alternative distribution methods, including Tugg's theatrical-on-demand platform, Yekra's VOD platform and ShortsHD, a TV channel dedicated to short films. All three will provide awards packages for the HFF.

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Fitzgerald, 47, has been in the festival game for two decades, having co-founded Slamdance in 1995 and also directed the AFI, Santa Barbara, Abu Dhabi and Topanga film festivals.

In recent years, he noticed "a groundswell of the success of cause-based documentaries," such as 2009's "The Cove," which investigated dolphin-hunting practices in Japan, and 2013's "Blood Brother," about an American caretaker for HIV-positive orphans in rural India.

In 2010, Fitzgerald founded CineCause, a philanthropic platform that connects audiences with the causes behind social-issue films, and last year De Abreu tapped him to be the HFF's executive director.

Fitzgerald added a CineCause Spotlight to the festival, screening films such as "Finding Hillywood," "Friends of Mine" and "Walking the Camino," and the aforementioned Celebrating Hollywood, which included "A Star for Rose" and "Life Inside Out." Fitzgerald said festival attendance went up an estimated 10% to 15%, to about 7,500 people.

After that success, De Abreu approached Fitzgerald about acquiring the HFF outright. "It comes a point that you want the festival to go to a different level," De Abreu said in a phone interview, adding that he felt it was "time to pass the flag to somebody who is serious, dedicated and respected within the community."

Now that Fitzgerald has full run of the festival, he hopes to build up its reputation and double last year's attendance.

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Part of the challenge the HFF faces is standing out from the field; with its mid-October dates, it falls between the high-profile Toronto International Film Festival in September and Los Angeles' own AFI Fest in November.

Fitzgerald thinks it can be done, and said De Abreu — a former jet pilot for the Portuguese air force and onetime Cartier marketing exec — never had the time or experience to take the HFF to the next level.

(De Abreu also founded the Hollywood Film Awards, which are not affiliated with the festival and will be broadcast on CBS for the first time later this year or early next year.)

"The festival never really rose to its potential because there was not enough time, money or experience applied," Fitzgerald said, "and I think what we're bringing to the table now is all the above."

The question now is whether and how festival-goers will respond to the HFF's new direction. After all, most people associate Hollywood with star power and spectacle and rather than social consciousness.

Fitzgerald doesn't see those elements as mutually exclusive. "We will have celebrities, we will have red carpets, we will have galas, we will have receptions," he said. "It will have a taste of Hollywood."

What the HFF won't have, Fitzgerald said, is a screening of the latest $100-million studio blockbuster. "They don't need us. If you're going to see the movie in a few weeks anyway because it's coming out through Warner Bros., then I don't want to give away a valuable slot to that movie. I'd rather give it to an emerging filmmaker."

Fitzgerald added, "There are other festivals doing great things. We're going to be different, and I think we can showcase another side of Hollywood."

[For the Record, 2:04 p.m. March 28: An earlier version of this article said Fitzgerald said the HFF turned a profit for the first time in several years under his direction. Fitzgerald was referring to a previous, unrelated festival he had once directed, not the HFF.]

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