Helping AFI Fest Secure Its Niche

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Christian Gaines is trying to explain cricket to a fellow American.

"It's really an easy game," says Gaines, 35, who was born in Belgium and educated at British prep schools.

"The object of cricket is to get the most runs, and you do that by hitting the ball far enough so you can run backwards and forwards," he says with a smile. "Every time you run this way, that's one run. You have six balls to an over. Every over, there is a mirror image. Everyone swaps sides. The bowler goes from one end to the other. The batters move from one end to the other."

Got that?

Gaines concedes that his European upbringing gave him a greater understanding of the rules of cricket than, say, baseball, or American-style football, where the object of the game often seems to be stamping an opponent into the sod--or, at least, the Astroturf.

But if Gaines thinks he has a challenge explaining the rules of cricket to the uninitiated, think of the task that lies ahead in his new job: director of the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival.

In a world bursting at the seams with film festivals--where every corner of the globe from Avignon to Zanzibar is toasting independent filmmakers and their craft these days--playing the festival game is an ever-more daunting enterprise, even for the American Film Institute.

"I think the film festival world has changed enormously in the last five to 10 years," says Gaines, who is wrapping up his four-year stint as head of the Hawaii International Film Festival before bringing his wife and two young children from Honolulu to L.A. "There are more film festivals now in the world than there ever were and more being added all the time."

Although Los Angeles is at the epicenter of the movie industry, it has long struggled to achieve the same status and media attention with its festivals as those in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Park City, Utah's Sundance.

On the local scene, AFI vies for attention with the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Outfest, the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival and even the 4-year-old upstart Hollywood Film Festival.

But Gaines, ever the optimist, does not believe AFI has to slug it out mano a mano with the other festivals to achieve its goals.

"Call me Pollyanna," he says with a boyish, sun-reddened grin that reminds one of a lifeguard, "but I'm a big believer that the more ways people become interested in film and people become interested in alternatives, the better it is for everybody else.

"We are all focusing," he adds. "The L.A. Independent Film Festival is focusing on American independent films. Outfest is focusing on gay and lesbian film. Our focus is international film. We want to be the festival of record for international film, and we take that very seriously and feel our job is cut out for us in finding the best in international film and creating a showcase for international cinema."

Gaines takes the reins of AFI Fest from Jon Fitzgerald, who tailored the festival to include a European film showcase, an expanded documentary section, the inauguration of a Latin Cinema Series and a juried competition. Fitzgerald also reduced the number of pictures screened by half and placed more emphasis on promotion and corporate sponsorship. Last year's festival, which ran Oct. 21-29, drew more than 50,000 people.

Fitzgerald, who recently left AFI to take an executive position at iFilm.com, an independent film-oriented Web site, was a controversial figure. As founder of Slamdance, the edgy alternative to Sundance, he was expected to bring new ideas to the staid AFI Fest.

One film critic complained that under Fitzgerald, AFI Fest not only saw the festival lineup steadily shrink, but also the quality of its films decrease. But supporters said Fitzgerald had earned the respect and support of everyone involved with the festival.

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Fueled by the box-office success of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film "sex, lies and videotape," which was shown at Sundance and went on to take in $24.7 million in North America, the number of film festivals that showcase independent movies has mushroomed in the past decade. There are now more than 95 festivals in the U.S. alone and more than 400 worldwide, according to the Hollywood trade publication Daily Variety.

Moreover, Variety noted, these festivals "have become vehicles for free publicity and form a circuit well traveled by the stars, directors, producers and publicists pushing indie and foreign-language movies."

But the AFI, under the stewardship of longtime director and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg, has something going for it that other festivals can't match. Not only is its membership rooted in the locally based motion picture industry, its board of trustees is made up of many movers and shakers in Hollywood, from powerful studio executives to influential directors, producers, actors, screenwriters, union officials and talent agents.

As a nonprofit organization, AFI has a multitude of tasks besides running an annual film festival. It also trains future filmmakers, catalogs and preserves movies, stages an annual Life Achievement Award that is broadcast on television and, in recent years, has developed a centennial-themed TV special. This year's show, "AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Laughs," received good ratings when it aired on CBS in June.

So, why hasn't the AFI festival--nicknamed AFI Fest--been able to squeeze its way into the major leagues alongside Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Sundance?

Nancy Collet, 32, AFI Fest's program manager for the past three years who will now work with Gaines in organizing this year's event, believes the festival's location is a boon and a hindrance.

"Los Angeles is a difficult city in which to hold a film festival," Collet says. "Yes, it is the center of filmmaking, so all the people in the business are here, but it's also sort of a jaded community, one where big Hollywood movies are so important. There is a premiere every night for a big studio movie, so to bring people to a small Finnish film by an unknown director is sometimes difficult, because everyone wants to see celebrities all the time.

"People who work in the business want to be associated with celebrities, so when you are trying to bring in new talent, it's not very easy," Collet adds. "People say, 'Oh, I love foreign film,' but when they have the choice of seeing Mel Gibson or a small film. . . .' "

But on the upside, Gaines says, people in the film industry are always trying to find the hot, new talent, so that works in AFI's favor.

"It may be jaded and it may be about big budgets and big films here, but it's also a town that relishes discovery and discovering talent and discovering films," Gaines says. "I think that's what we really need to focus on. I think when you bring films into L.A., the advantage to a filmmaker is that this is an L.A. screening and you really have an opportunity, as a filmmaker, to make the most of it."

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Gaines and Collet are already viewing possible entrants for this year's AFI Fest, although their final selections--about 70 in all--won't be announced until closer to the festival, which runs Oct. 19-26. The chief venues will be the Egyptian and El Capitan theaters in Hollywood.

Last year's festival opened with Lasse Hallstrom's "The Cider House Rules," which won two Academy Awards this year, and closed with Pedro Almodovar's "All About My Mother," which received the Oscar for best foreign film. In 1998, AFI Fest opened with Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," which went on to capture three Oscars.

Gaines has spent more than a decade in the film festival trade. He co-founded the American Pavilion at Cannes, which has become a popular venue at the seaside resort, and is coming off the Hawaii International Film Festival, which has showcased many Asian-Pacific movies. Gaines said one of his top priorities in L.A. will be creating an Asian-Pacific section at AFI Fest.

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Why Asia and the Pacific? "Because it covers two-thirds of the Earth's surface," Gaines says, "and I think one of the things about a festival that covers a region [like L.A.] is that it should reflect the region culturally."

One country whose film industry bears watching, he notes, is mainland China.

"I think the Chinese government recognizes the profit potential for Chinese films," he says. "Now, there's still a feeling of, 'You can't make a film about anything in China,' but people are becoming more interested in making independent films there. There is still a need for script approval by the government, and you can't make films that are politically sensitive, but not every film has to be politically sensitive. This is an exciting place."

For the past few weeks, Gaines has been spending his time crisscrossing the Pacific, dividing his time between his new job at AFI's campus-like headquarters in the hills above Hollywood and his home in Honolulu and his family, which includes his wife, Kristen, and their two children, 4-year-old Lola and 1-year-old Luke.

As for Collet, the ex-New Yorker began her entertainment career in the mail room at the old Triad Artists talent agency. During her three years at AFI Fest, she has been responsible for programming such films as "Dancemaker," "Gods and Monsters" and "Mifune." Her husband, Christophe, works at Paramount.

Gaines and Collet say they want to encourage first-time filmmakers to submit entries for this year's festival.

"I see a lot of submissions coming from people who've had a whole other career doing something else," Collet says, "and now they are just making their first feature."

But filmmaking is not as easy as it appears, they stress, and finding the gems takes patience.

Just like getting the hang of cricket.

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