David Ansen’s L.A. Film Festival approach: mass with class

Most film festivals are torn between playing art-house obscurities and movies with mass appeal. But new Los Angeles Film Festival artistic director David Ansen believes he can have it both ways.

“Some festivals take the position that it’s only art if it hurts. I believe in the pleasure principle,” says Ansen, taking a break Monday, during a busy day of media screenings and last-minute decisions, to have lunch at Canter’s Deli. “But I also hear constantly that people under a certain age don’t want to go to subtitled movies, and my devout wish is that we can turn those people on to them.”

It’s been a year of enormous change for LAFF, as the festival (which is co-sponsored by The Times) moves from its haunts in Westwood to a group of theaters downtown. Ansen is a key part of this grand reinvention. A 30-year veteran of Newsweek, the 65-year-old critic and writer took a buyout from the magazine at the end of 2008 and then, last fall, gave up much of his contract writing for the magazine to take on the full-time position as LAFF artistic director, replacing Rachel Rosen, who moved to the San Francisco Film Festival.

Wearing a blue pullover and thick-framed, architect-chic glasses, Ansen is decidedly on the art-house side of the programming spectrum. Known for an encyclopedic knowledge of film as well as for a cone-headed streak (he served for eight years on the selection committee of the aggressively upscale New York Film Festival), Ansen isn’t shy about his love of documentaries and global cinema, reeling off, in the span of 20 minutes, movies from China, Estonia, Japan and the Republic of Georgia that he’s excited about on this year’s LAFF slate, which he put together with the help of associate director of programming Doug Jones.

But Ansen also wants to balance his love of obscurities with movies that will pull in the widest possible audience. The festival is opening Thursday night with a proven crowd-pleaser (and L.A-set film), Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” a family dramedy that delighted audiences at Sundance (and that stands in sharp contrast to the self-conscious drama of last year’s opener “Paper Man,” which drew a mixed reception). The festival is closing this year with the animated “Despicable Me,” the broad entertainment starring Steve Carell that Universal opens this summer. In-between, the festival will screen about 80 new films across pretty much every genre, including 15 world premieres.

Ansen’s careful populism is perhaps best embodied by his decision to show “Eclipse,” the third movie in the “Twilight” franchise — but in a way that sets it off from the other titles. Regular badge-holders will not be granted access to the screening, which essentially doubles as the movie’s premiere, and Ansen is careful to point out that movie is not in the festival but “festival-adjacent.”

Festival director Rebecca Yeldham, who spent a month cajoling Ansen to leave his writing career to take the job, says she chose him precisely because of these two poles on his compass. “I thought, ‘Here was somebody who has very refined taste but who also has a real appreciation of film as entertainment,” she says.

Since being hired in November, Ansen has been on a kind of moviegoing bender, hopscotching from Sundance to Berlin to a film market in Gottenburg, Sweden, seeing as many as five movies a day. It’s a more prolific schedule than he was accustomed to as a reviewer — and one that calls on a different set of skills. “You’re looking at movies with a different eye,” he says. “You’re trying to create a balance that you don’t need to create as a critic.”

All that globetrotting has given the festival an international feel. More than half of the movies in competition are overseas productions. A shortlist of films both in and out of competition that Ansen informally singles out feels like a United Nations of movie titles. Among them are the Japanese comic thriller “Golden Slumber” (described as a cross between “The Fugitive” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”); a Balkan Cold War documentary, “Disco & Atomic War,” about American TV shows that beamed into Estonia during the Soviet era; a Georgian drama about a wandering junkie called “Street Days”; and the Portland, Ore., noir “Cold Weather.”

Ansen’s philosophy is governed by the same elastic rule that many programmers follow — “we want to choose movies that we like,” he says — but he also has some specific notions about what he doesn’t want. “There’s a certain kind of middlebrow, higher-end American independent that has stars in it, possibly well intentioned but in no way adventurous, that I’m not interested in,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of those at other festivals, and we don’t have a lot of those in this festival.”

The former critic’s penchant for quality over star power also helped lead to the festival this year abolishing the rule that previously prohibited too many films that played other festivals, as LAFF hopes to broaden the quality pool as much as possible.

As he nibbles on French fries and a hamburger, Ansen is remarkably calm for a man in his first year in a volatile job. He acknowledges — in a mind-mannered way — some of the stresses of the last seven months. “There are moments when it’s been interesting to see another side of people you thought you knew,” he says, referring to studios and producers with films he sought for LAFF. “When you see people as a critic they’re always nice and wearing their smiley face. And when you deal with them as a programmer you see them differently. You see them playing hard to get. And you have to hold your tongue and not call them on their horrible behavior.”

The decision to woo as many films as possible is a necessity as the festival seeks to take its Westside regulars with it as it moves downtown. “We know we’re going to lose some people,” Ansen says, adding that he hopes downtown will tap into a young, arts-minded Eastside crowd.

And if it doesn’t always work that way, he’ll look to his secret weapon. “I think the people who come in for ‘Twilight’ will stop in and check out something else.” He pauses. “At least I hope they do.”