Downtown suits L.A. Film Festival’s vision

It wasn’t until the programs came back from the printer that the L.A. Film Festival’s leaders saw how tricky the move from Westwood to downtown L.A. might be.

Last year’s programs were etched in a shade similar to UCLA blue.This year the festival inadvertently picked USC Trojan colors, cardinal and gold.

“It was brought to our attention from some of our friends in Westwood that they felt we had shifted allegiances, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no!’” said Rebecca Yeldham, the festival’s ever-diplomatic, Australian-born director during an interview last week. “None of that was intentional.”

But there was nothing unintentional about the move itself for the festival, which opens with Thursday night’s screening of Lisa Cholodenko’s dramedy “The Kids Are All Right” and runs through June 27.

After four years on the Westside, the festival’s relocation is part of the rebooting and re-branding of a cultural institution that, since its founding in the 1970s in a very different, much smaller format, has sometimes struggled to distinguish itself from rivals that are bigger (Toronto), trendier ( Tribeca) and more conspicuously swathed in celebrity plumage and power (Cannes, Sundance).

At last, L.A. festival organizers believe, they’ve found the perfect environment to nurture their next-stage growth.

“It’s been the long-held dream of the festival, and this pre-dates my being part of the festival team, to evolve the festival into a destination festival,” said Yeldham, a movie producer (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) who took up the event’s reins last year. “And it really does feel that that’s the energy around downtown, and it’s got this forward momentum and thrust.”

“And also because of the expandability of the footprint down there, in terms of venue opportunities, in terms of resources available to travelers down there and visitors, it really feels that suddenly our location is aligned with our vision.”

It remains to be seen whether that alignment will pay off in greater global visibility and increased attendance, which in recent years has plateaued at around 75,000.

But already a number of observers have praised the festival’s new downtown digs, part of a three-year commitment, as a bold decision filled with potential dividends. These include larger, more modern screening venues, a glut of determinedly hip restaurants, a built-in neighborhood audience of culturally frisky loft and apartment dwellers and, crucially, a cheaper and more abundant parking supply.

Hoteliers, restaurateurs, nightclub owners and civic officials hope to realize economists’ predictions that the festival could pump millions of dollars into downtown’s economy.

A critical factor in the festival’s relocation was its newly formed partnership with sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which owns and operates the Staples Center and the adjacent L.A. Live campus. The relationship was forged when festival organizers, scouting new venues, attended this year’s Independent Spirit Awards, which are presented by LAFF producer Film Independent, at L.A. Live.

The festival will use L.A. Live as its hub. Screenings will be held at the 7,100-seat Nokia Theatre and the new Regal Cinemas L.A. Live Stadium 14, as well as at the REDCAT theater at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the historic Orpheum and Million Dollar movie palaces on Broadway, among other locations.

“For us the L.A. Live campus is absolutely perfect for the festival,” said Scott Hanley, vice president of events for AEG/L.A. Live. “Although it is a global event, it’s also a great community event as well.”

As a homage to its new home, the festival will screen two vintage, noir-ish movies that pay visual tribute to inner-city L.A., “The Driver” (1978), written and directed by Walter Hill, and “Hickey & Boggs” (1972), scripted by Hill and directed by Robert Culp.

Auxiliary events will draw on the talent that resides in the festival’s own backyard. The Grammy Museum will host a discussion of Roger Corman’s wayward oeuvre and a conversation with Ben Affleck. John Lithgow and Sylvester Stallone will be featured in evening chats and screenings at Regal Cinemas.

At REDCAT, Quincy Jones will present Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” (1985) and Paul Reubens will host a showing of Frank Capra’s 1938 classic “You Can’t Take It With You.”

And at the Downtown Independent movie house, on the edge of Little Tokyo, Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold will present “Udon” (2006), Motohiro Katsuyuki’s comic paean to the humble noodle that’s a Japanese dietary staple.

The relocation also contains some possible pitfalls, starting with the presumed reluctance of certain Hollywood potentates and other Westside denizens to brave rush-hour traffic and come downtown. Organizers hope to mitigate transportation problems by running shuttle buses among the various venues and by starting screenings a bit later than in the past to allow for more commuting time.

A bigger challenge may be the perception, justified or not, that downtown is dicey.

“There’s still some people that are scared of downtown,” said David Ansen, the longtime Newsweek movie critic who last year was named the festival’s artistic director. “It’s some sort of atavistic thing, you know, which is pretty silly.”

But if some Angelenos find the new location daunting, others may find it more inviting, both geographically and programmatically, than in the past.

The festival has increased its emphasis on foreign films, particularly Spanish-language ones. Among the more anticipated features is “Revolución,” an omnibus film inspired by this year’s Mexican Revolution centennial, with segments directed by Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Carlos Reygadas and others. Ansen is championing a four-film retrospective of one of his art-house idols, the “forgotten” Argentine director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson.

“It’s probably more international than it’s ever been,” Ansen said, “not just our international section, because we’ve made the narrative competition 50% international, which it’s never been before.”

Olga Garay, executive director of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, said that under Yeldham’s leadership, the festival was acquiring a fittingly multicultural sensibility.

“That’s very important in a city like Los Angeles that is obviously a polyglot of languages and cultures,” she said.

The festival will maintain its red-carpet quotient with a handful of big-budget studio films, such as the world premiere of the latest installment of the vampire franchise “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the romantic comedy “Cyrus,” with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei, and Universal’s 3-D animated film “Despicable Me.”

And “The Kids Are All Right,” with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple whose teenage kids seek out their sperm-donor father ( Mark Ruffalo), exemplifies the festival’s desire to spotlight indie films and auteurs that mix entertainment with provocative viewpoints. If they happen to be L.A.-centric, so much the better.

“I think that they are clearly trying to reach out into as many sections of Los Angeles culture as they can,” said Steve Anker, dean of the school of film video at Cal Arts, who co-curates film and video programming at REDCAT.

What you won’t be seeing, Ansen vowed, is “a certain kind of independent movie that has sort of some pretty big names in it” that is well-intentioned but “kind of lukewarm” and “middle-brow.”

“We have some very small, quiet movies, but they’re made with a real vision,” he said.

Among their main goals, Yeldham and Ansen said, is to use their new address to foster a sense of community: between filmmakers and audiences, filmmakers and filmmakers, and everyone with downtown L.A.

“We want very much for people to feel like they can find their tribe and find community,” Yeldham said.

“We’re going to learn a lot this year.”