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It’s a little less festive on the festival circuit

They’ve been changing teams with the frequency of baseball superstars.

Geoff Gilmore, the head of the Sundance Film Festival, left Robert Redford’s festival last month to work for another actor of a certain age: Gilmore’s now the chief creative officer at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises, the parent company of the Tribeca Film Festival.

The head Sundance festival programmer, John Cooper, was elevated into Gilmore’s job early this month. A day later, Rebecca Yeldham, herself a former Sundance programmer, moved in to oversee the Los Angeles Film Festival, which had lost its director, Richard Raddon, in November.

Kent Jones, the associate director of programming at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, left his position earlier this month too. Last year, Christian Gaines exited his post directing the AFI Festival to run the online festival submission/distribution entity Withoutabox, while former South by Southwest programmer Matt Dentler left the Austin, Texas, gathering to work in digital media sales for Cinetic Rights Management.

This recent surge of job switches was not set off by any single fracture within independent film (where a number of top distributors have closed their doors) or inside the festival world (which is suffering its own shakeout, with numerous festivals shutting down). But the moves do underscore how volatile the festival world has suddenly become and how programmers foresee leaner and more focused events in the months ahead.

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“There’s been more news in the independent film festival world in the last three weeks than I can recall ever happening in my life,” says Nancy Schafer, executive director of the increasingly prominent Tribeca Film Festival, whose eighth annual get-together runs in New York from April 22 to May 4.

Says Trevor Groth, a veteran Sundance programmer who also serves as artistic director for the up-and-coming Las Vegas CineVegas Film Festival, marking its 11th edition this summer: “It’s indicative of what’s happening in the indie world -- there’s a lot of change going on.”

Taken together, the leadership shifts play up the importance of hiring the right festival director -- typically chosen by a board of directors -- and of the director selecting the right programming staff. Choose well and you’re presiding over the next big thing; make a poor choice, your movie-lover event goes the way of Smell-o-Vision.

“Any festival that stays the same risks flat-lining,” says Darryl Macdonald, who helped launch the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 1989 and returned in 2003 to reinvigorate it. “The programming was wandering,” Macdonald says of the January festival best known for showcasing Oscar-nominated foreign language features. “It needed a makeover.”

There are more film festivals today -- this week’s lineup includes the Maine Jewish Film Festival, the Cleveland International Film Festival, the Burbank International Film Festival and the , to name only a handful -- than any Caltech astrophysicist can count.

Not surprisingly, the ranks are starting to thin, an inevitable consequence of not only festival glut but also the deteriorating economy. Recently canceled festivals include the Canadian Film Festival, the Whittier Film Festival, New Jersey’s Wildwood by the Sea Film Festival, the Jackson Hole Film Festival and Apple’s Insomnia Film Festival.

“These are very unstable times. There are cutbacks right, left and center,” says Yeldham of the Los Angeles Film Festival, adding that all of the festival’s sponsors (including the Los Angeles Times) are returning for this year’s event.

“So far, it’s looking OK for us. But everybody is looking at their film festivals to see what their personality should be and what their agenda should be.”

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Keys to a fest

What does it take to keep a festival vital and ensure that it’s not swept up in the downsizing that is scorching the globe? In some ways, the baseball free agent comparison is fitting, as festival directors and sluggers share a surprising number of goals.

Festival directors have to hit for average -- it’s inevitable a number of selected movies will miss, but it’s essential there are many more hits than whiffs. With some festivals showing more than 100 titles (at January’s Sundance, 118 films were culled from 3,661 submissions), the odds of numerous strikeouts multiplies.

Like cleanup hitters, festival directors and programming staffs must swing for the fences: Film festivals (just like movie theaters) are filled with forgettable singles and doubles. It’s the epic crushes, though, that leave spectators in awe.

And festivals must have a specific identity. Just as Cal Ripken was always a Baltimore Oriole, the Cannes Film Festival has long been the place to find tuxedoed stars flanking topless starlets, while Sundance celebrates arty movies made without studio financing.

To shape a festival’s character, programmers must sift through thousands of submitted movies, searching for the right combination of several dozen that simultaneously can advance a festival’s image and its ticket sales (theater rentals are often a festival’s top expense).

“There is so much going on every second in Las Vegas that you are constantly compet- ing for attention,” CineVegas’ Groth says. “So you try to bring films to the city that it wouldn’t ordinarily get to see. The films that we have shown that were a little bit more conventional and a little bit more mainstream -- they don’t really connect.” In last year’s CineVegas, Groth hosted the premiere of the indie gambling drama “Big Heart City.” Sundance Sundance

The programming challenges are more complicated for Yeldham and her staff at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The city is filled with both soy latte cineastes and popcorn-munching “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” fans. “I’m not just interested in playing obscure art films. My heart lies in championing great cinema.”

Last year, under festival director Raddon (who resigned amid controversy over his donations supporting Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage initiative), the Los Angeles festival showed the big studio release “Wanted” alongside the tiny indie film “Frozen River.”

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New York stories

Because of the economic crisis, the Tribeca festival has trimmed its slate from 119 a year ago to 86. And rather than bombard festival guests with bleak narratives, “this year we are looking for more lighthearted fare,” says the festival’s Schafer. “We are always responsive to our times.”

The New York festival will open with Woody Allen’s latest comedy, “Whatever Works,” alongside documentaries such as “Love the Beast,” actor Eric Bana’s tale of his love affair with a Ford VB Falcon Coupe, and the civil rights-music story “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“We are a reflection of this city -- we want to have something for everyone,” Schafer says. “It’s just as important to have films for Iranian immigrants as it is a Bank of America executive.”

Perhaps no new director has more on his shoulders than Sundance’s Cooper, who is charged with not only maintaining the festival’s international prominence as a beacon for indie film but also advancing its objectives into new directions and media platforms.

“The times might be calling for a new strand of programming,” Cooper says. “People want to see something -- the fulfillment of a dream -- in Sundance, which is a lot of pressure. You’re not going to make everybody happy, but you have to stay close to our mission.”

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john.horn@latimes.com


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