In the land of plenty of films

Times Staff Writer

THERE’S a delicate balance to be struck when it comes to crafting a film festival lineup, said Carl Spence, director of programming for the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“Part of being a successful festival is knowing your audience,” Spence said, “and how you cannot just cater to them, so they will see exactly what they want, but how to challenge them and provide a more stimulating experience for the festival-goer.”

Take this year’s lineup. It boasts the highbrow, the fun and the far-flung. And, of course, there will be plenty of Hollywood celebrities.


The 17th annual edition of the festival opens tonight with Terrence Malick’s historical drama “The New World.” Over the next 12 days, the festival will present 232 films from 70 countries -- 51 of the 56 films that have been submitted for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film are among the selections.

Forty-five films from Latin America, Spain and Portugal are set to screen in the festival’s Cine Latino program, which focuses on emerging directors from those countries; Focus Italy will screen 13 films including six films from veteran director Pupi Avati, who is also the subject of a tribute; World Cinema Now features an overview of contemporary international cinema with new films from around the world including prize winners from other festivals; and the International Gala Screenings program highlights features from Brazil, France and Italy.

The festival will also feature three archival films: Charlie Chaplin’s “The Circus,” Frank Borzage’s “Moonrise” and a rarely seen 1949 film from Czechoslovakia, “Distant Journey.”

The festival’s annual awards gala on Saturday will honor David Cronenberg, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Shirley MacLaine, Felicity Huffman and Charlize Theron, among others.

Darryl Macdonald, festival director, said there are many factors that set the Palm Springs event apart from other film festivals. Not only is it the first major festival of the year, “it is the most comprehensive and broad-ranging overview of international cinema of any festival in the in the U.S.”

But that’s not the only goal, said Macdonald, who also emphasized the need to strike the right chord when handpicking a lineup. Film festivals should “bring filmmakers and filmgoers together and have something spark and have something wonderful come out of that whether it be opportunities for that filmmaker to make his next film or simply to get established to be better known. The most exciting part of doing the festival is finding new talent and then being able to turn a much larger audience onto it.”


Competition for films has grown more intense since the festival began. “By the time Palm Springs opened there were still maybe only 50 festivals. It’s really in the last 10 years there has been an explosion of film festivals,” Macdonald said.

But even with the rise in competition, Macdonald said, Palm Springs has built a reputation for “being able to help films get a foothold in the U.S. market whether it be a sale to a U.S. distributor or press coverage that might help the film get eventually a sale or some kind of audience acclaim or award. There are a lot of festivals offering lots of awards, but the bottom line remains credibility and if your festival is respected in the film community.”

As soon as the festival ends, Macdonald and Spence and other programmers begin traveling the world to select films for next year, attending such film festivals as Berlin, Rotterdam and Cannes.

“Here in Palm Springs we have a pretty far-flung team of programmers that are based in various parts of the country and the world,” Spence said.

Films are also submitted, and “a fair number” of those submissions are accepted, he said.

When the Palm Springs International Film Festival began in 1990, most of the attendees resided in the desert resort community and surrounding cities. But it has grown beyond those borders and boasts an international contingent.

“It has the second-highest attendance of any film festival in the country [after the Seattle International Film Festival],” Macdonald said. More than 105,000 attended last year, he said. The vast majority of visitors are from California, but a growing number -- 12% last year -- came from outside the state, some as far away as Paris and London.


The festival was the brainchild of Palm Springs’ mayor at the time, the late Sonny Bono, who saw the festival as a way to beef up tourism and extend the visitors’ season to the desert getaway.

“At that time, right after New Year’s, this city essentially dropped dead in terms of tourism,” Macdonald said. “So they wanted to do something to elongate the tourism season and at the same time, hopefully, and this obviously wasn’t going to happen overnight, that it would generate enough publicity for Palm Springs that would drive tourism in the future. Indeed, that seems to have happened.”


Palm Springs International

Film Festival

Opening night

Screening “The New World” at 6 tonight, Palm Springs High School.

Awards gala

Honoring Jake Gyllenhaal (actor), Charlize Theron (actress), Terrence Howard (rising star award), Felicity Huffman (breakthrough performance award) and others. 7 p.m. Saturday, Palm Springs Convention Center.


Closing night

Features the British film “Wah-Wah,” starring Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Julie Walters, at 5 p.m. Jan. 15, Palm Springs High School.

When: Screenings, panel discussions and seminars take place today through Jan. 15

Where: Annenberg Auditorium, 101 Museum Drive; Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road; Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros; Palm Springs High School, 2248 E. Ramon Road; and Palm Springs Regal 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way

Info: (800) 898-PALM,