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Helping AFI Fest Secure Its Niche

Amid the explosion of film festivals, the event's new director, Christian Gaines, has his work cut out for him.

July 16, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Christian Gaines is trying to explain cricket to a fellow American.

"It's really an easy game," says Gaines, 35, who was born in Belgium and educated at British prep schools.

"The object of cricket is to get the most runs, and you do that by hitting the ball far enough so you can run backwards and forwards," he says with a smile. "Every time you run this way, that's one run. You have six balls to an over. Every over, there is a mirror image. Everyone swaps sides. The bowler goes from one end to the other. The batters move from one end to the other."

Got that?

Gaines concedes that his European upbringing gave him a greater understanding of the rules of cricket than, say, baseball, or American-style football, where the object of the game often seems to be stamping an opponent into the sod--or, at least, the Astroturf.

But if Gaines thinks he has a challenge explaining the rules of cricket to the uninitiated, think of the task that lies ahead in his new job: director of the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival.

In a world bursting at the seams with film festivals--where every corner of the globe from Avignon to Zanzibar is toasting independent filmmakers and their craft these days--playing the festival game is an ever-more daunting enterprise, even for the American Film Institute.

"I think the film festival world has changed enormously in the last five to 10 years," says Gaines, who is wrapping up his four-year stint as head of the Hawaii International Film Festival before bringing his wife and two young children from Honolulu to L.A. "There are more film festivals now in the world than there ever were and more being added all the time."

Although Los Angeles is at the epicenter of the movie industry, it has long struggled to achieve the same status and media attention with its festivals as those in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and Park City, Utah's Sundance.

On the local scene, AFI vies for attention with the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, Outfest, the Asian Pacific Film and Video Festival and even the 4-year-old upstart Hollywood Film Festival.

But Gaines, ever the optimist, does not believe AFI has to slug it out mano a mano with the other festivals to achieve its goals.

"Call me Pollyanna," he says with a boyish, sun-reddened grin that reminds one of a lifeguard, "but I'm a big believer that the more ways people become interested in film and people become interested in alternatives, the better it is for everybody else.

"We are all focusing," he adds. "The L.A. Independent Film Festival is focusing on American independent films. Outfest is focusing on gay and lesbian film. Our focus is international film. We want to be the festival of record for international film, and we take that very seriously and feel our job is cut out for us in finding the best in international film and creating a showcase for international cinema."

Gaines takes the reins of AFI Fest from Jon Fitzgerald, who tailored the festival to include a European film showcase, an expanded documentary section, the inauguration of a Latin Cinema Series and a juried competition. Fitzgerald also reduced the number of pictures screened by half and placed more emphasis on promotion and corporate sponsorship. Last year's festival, which ran Oct. 21-29, drew more than 50,000 people.

Fitzgerald, who recently left AFI to take an executive position at iFilm.com, an independent film-oriented Web site, was a controversial figure. As founder of Slamdance, the edgy alternative to Sundance, he was expected to bring new ideas to the staid AFI Fest.

One film critic complained that under Fitzgerald, AFI Fest not only saw the festival lineup steadily shrink, but also the quality of its films decrease. But supporters said Fitzgerald had earned the respect and support of everyone involved with the festival.

*

Fueled by the box-office success of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film "sex, lies and videotape," which was shown at Sundance and went on to take in $24.7 million in North America, the number of film festivals that showcase independent movies has mushroomed in the past decade. There are now more than 95 festivals in the U.S. alone and more than 400 worldwide, according to the Hollywood trade publication Daily Variety.

Moreover, Variety noted, these festivals "have become vehicles for free publicity and form a circuit well traveled by the stars, directors, producers and publicists pushing indie and foreign-language movies."

But the AFI, under the stewardship of longtime director and CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg, has something going for it that other festivals can't match. Not only is its membership rooted in the locally based motion picture industry, its board of trustees is made up of many movers and shakers in Hollywood, from powerful studio executives to influential directors, producers, actors, screenwriters, union officials and talent agents.

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