They're an odd couple. One is short, the other tall. One is reserved, the other voluble. One looks after the money. The other says he cares only about art.
Together, Robert Faust, the short, reserved one, and Thomas Ethan Harris--with more than a little help from their friends--have given birth to a festival that, in five short years, has established itself as one of the premier showcases for new cinematic talent. They've done it, they say, by striking the proper balance.
"We see things very similarly, and yet we see things very differently," said Faust, explaining why their different orientations are a plus.
"Robert is kind of like the father of independent cinema, focused, steady, always thinking about finances," said Harris of the founder and director of the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, which started Thursday and continues through Tuesday . "I'm more like the mother. I'm more emotional. The only thing I care about is the most innovative films. It's all about the art."
Art versus commerce. This tug of war is central to Hollywood filmmaking. So why shouldn't it figure prominently in a festival dedicated to nurturing new work and presenting it to the industry? As the festival celebrates it's fifth anniversary, the conflict is as pronounced as ever.
One of the recurring dilemmas that Harris, the festival's programmer, and Faust have concerns the balance of films in the festival. From the beginning they have tried to walk a fine line. They bill the event as being foremost concerned with the filmmakers, but any festival has to satisfy several constituencies. That's the tricky part.
Obviously, acquisition executives, managers and agents wouldn't bother to come out if there wasn't a reasonable expectation that they'd see commercially viable work. But commercial viability can hardly be the only criteria used to select films if the festival is to maintain artistic credibility.
Acknowledging his and Harris' different outlooks, Faust said: "That's what makes Thomas and I such a great team, and it's why we love each other so much."
"We only had one fight today," chimed in Harris.
Faust acknowledges that he tends to want to market the event more strenuously. "There is some sense of commercial film in the festival," he said. "I realize who our audience is."
The event has grown each year--more films, more venues, bigger audiences, all raising the festival's profile and making it more of a magnet for the best new filmmakers. But such growth is not possible without a corresponding increase in costs and financial support. Nor is it possible without the cachet of presenting movies that get picked up for distribution. But how far can a festival go in touting a reputation for feeding the Hollywood machine while still staking a claim as a showcase for daring and artistically exciting work?
The numbers are telling. This year, 25,000 people are expected to attend, 33 feature films and 35 shorts will be shown. In 1995, there were 14 features and 19 shorts, and 4,000 people attended. The challenge for Faust & Co. is to continue to grow and improve the quality of the festival without losing sight of what made it unique in the first place: its compact size, its careful balance of adventurous work with more accessible movies, and its focus on giving struggling filmmakers a helping hand.
The festival opened with the world premiere of Phil Joanou's romantic comedy, "Entropy," starring Stephen Dorff, Lauren Holly, Hector Elizondo and Bono. It closes Tuesday with the premiere of George Hickenlooper's "The Big Brass Ring," a political drama adapted from a script Orson Welles wrote with Oja Kodar. It stars William Hurt, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Hawthorne and Irene Jacobs.
Increased competition caused by the proliferation of independent movies in recent years has made it much harder for filmmakers to get their work before the public. Festivals are the only place most independent movies will be shown, said Jason Blum, a senior vice president for acquisitions at Miramax.
"I think that's one reason why you have so many festivals being formed," said Harris.
The sights of the filmmakers, however, are set much higher than a onetime showing to a festival audience. Faust says an impressive 40% of the movies his festival has shown have been picked up for distribution, many as a direct result of showing here.
The festival's size is one of its biggest advantages. Sundance and Toronto are so big and they show so many films (many of them at the same time) that they're like "a free-for-all," said Steven Raphael, an acquisitions executive at Gramercy Pictures.
He said he may see as many as 20 movies at the Los Angeles festival--many more than he sees at Sundance--because it is smaller and easier to navigate and because the films are scheduled so that they rarely overlap.