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U.S. Films Not So Popular at Palm Springs Festival : Movies: Foreign, independent entries grab viewers, possibly because American films can be seen elsewhere.

January 18, 1994|KENT BLACK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALM SPRINGS — There was a surprisingly sparse crowd gathered for "Blink," the Michael Apted thriller starring Madeleine Stowe at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. After all, the film generated good word of mouth and as the "major studio release" chosen to kick off Saturday's closing night festivities, one might expect the Coachella Valley to come out in force.

In fact, none of the majors packed them in at the festival. It was at foreign films such as "La Scorta" and "Fiorile" (Italy), "Harmony Cats" and "La Florida" (Canada), "Justiz" (Germany) and "Belle Epoque' (Spain)--and American independent films such as "Lookin' Italian," "The Last Seduction" and "My Life's in Turnaround"--that seats were scarce, unless one arrived half an hour early. Of the half-dozen films scheduled for third screenings due to popularity, none was a big-budget American film.

At the Palm Springs Mall gala after "Blink's" screening, local festival devotee Kate Foster expressed the opinion that "people here are more interested in experimenting. They know there's a good chance of seeing most of the American films down the road, but this is probably the only chance they'll get to see some of the foreign or small American films . . . most of which'll probably never even make it to video."

Arranging the lineup for this year's festival was artistic director Mark Diamond. Hired late and given only three months to slate 100 films (including shorts), the onetime director of the Boston International Film Festival not only managed a popular slate of foreign offerings, but also put together a tribute to Sophia Loren, organized the first major retrospective of Federico Fellini's work since the director's death last year, and, by creating the American Independent Showcase, became a hero to a number of young American filmmakers.

"Most of these independents have a very, very small chance of ever finding distribution on their own," said Diamond. "At least by showcasing some of the better ones, there's a good chance of generating some interest. I also think it's very important for some of these younger filmmakers to have the experience of coming to a festival. This was the first one for the 'Rhinoskin' kids."

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Dina Marie Chapman co-wrote, produced and directed "Rhinoskin: The Making of a Movie Star," a documentary-style comedy about making it in Hollywood, with its star, Tod De Pre. Chapman, a 23-year-old USC graduate, said the festival has been an eye opener. "I thought it was going to be cutthroat, but everyone's been really helpful. They're like, 'I love your film, give me a tape and I'll get it to my distributor.' "

Director Jamie Bruce, who co-produced the gritty chase thriller, "Dirty Money" with the film's star and screenwriter Federick Deane, had three solid offers for foreign distribution but by midweek was still hoping for a solid domestic offer. "It's harder to get domestic distribution because there just aren't that many venues for independents. Whereas, there are a lot more possibilities abroad, especially if the film deals in some way with American culture."

Yet, for all the practical and altruistic reasons for showcasing American independents, one of the best is just to experience the refreshing enthusiasm of artists who like to tell their stories on films. At screenings of movies like the hilarious and sophisticated "My Life's in Turnaround," James Merendino's darkly funny and disturbing "The Upstairs," Guy Magar's popular "Lookin' Italian" or Bruce and Deane's homage a noir, one heard tales about labors of love, maxing out credit cards and directors putting themselves in cameos to save 50 bucks.

Final attendance figures could not be determined at press time, but executive director Craig Prater admitted to a local paper that attendance and grosses were going to fall below last year's marks. Considering the number of overflow audiences at some films, it was hard to see how.

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Of course, not all aspects of the festival were wildly popular with everyone. A Canadian director who asked not to be identified, said he found the behavior of the audiences to be the most ill-mannered of recent experience. "I think a lot of these people think they're home watching a video. When the lights go down, out comes the picnic and the crinkling of paper continues for a half hour. Then, between scenes, they discuss what just happened, what will happen and what might be nice to pick up for dinner."

Even if Palm Springs is the rube among international film festivals, it has a number of unique attractions. Although the festival trades upon its now somewhat tattered reputation as pastureland for former stars, there is a charming Anyburb, U.S.A., feel about the place. At the closing night gala, the party was more akin to a rousing Kiwanis affair than anything connected to Celluloid City.

And while some may think the gala's locale was slightly tacky, its lack of pretension was its most endearing quality. "Why not a mall?" asked Kate Foster. "It's perfect; 85% of American life takes place inside them."

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