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A Banner Event?

L.A. Film Fest leaders want to turn it into a world-class event. First, they must convince the locals.

June 16, 2002|LYNN SMITH | Lynn Smith is a Times staff writer.

When the Independent Features Project/West acquired the Los Angeles Film Festival two years ago, it aspired to do what no one had ever done: build a world-class film festival in the heart of movieland. Almost immediately, executive director Dawn Hudson started to hear passionate and disparate opinions of how she should proceed.

"Someone said, 'You should just show documentary films.' One person said we should make it like a filmmakers' campus and focus on the art, not the business of filmmaking," she recalled. "Another said it should be only a festival for the industry. A filmmaker said, 'Just make sure you have all the agents there. We want our films bought.' Another said it should be for the general public only, a film lovers' festival. Another person said, 'You should be Cannes in L.A. and have a market and a festival and put it on the beach.' "

On Thursday, the IFP/West, a respected nonprofit known for its Independent Spirit Awards and support programs for indie filmmakers, will open a reinvented festival with something for almost everyone. "We're moving from a niche festival to a more general film festival," L.A. Film Festival programming director Rachel Rosen said. "We're stretching any number of ways."

Even among well-wishers, however, questions abound. For one, the metamorphosis comes amid an explosion of film festivals, which have multiplied an estimated fivefold during the past five years. There are now 1,600 festivals around the world and 650 in the United States, according to Filmfestivals Entertainment Group, an international organization that provides Web and television support to film festivals. None of the more than two dozen festivals in Los Angeles ranks in the top 10, a list dominated by Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Venice and Berlin, said Bruno Chatelin, Filmfestivals' chief operating officer.

For another, it's unclear whether L.A. can support--or even wants--another film festival. New festivals seem to pop up all the time around Southern California, whether to promote tourism or to draw specialty audiences.

"On the one hand, you could make the argument that perhaps no other city in the world is more able to support such a divergent mix of film events," said Christian Gaines, director of the AFI Fest, the American Film Institute festival, one of the largest and most respected of Los Angeles' existing festivals. "On the other, you can argue it contributes to disorientation and confusion among the film community as well as the general public. Their feelings are, 'There are too many film events and I can't quite keep up with them all.' "

As the world's film center, Los Angeles needs a film festival less than almost any other place in the world, said film critic Roger Ebert. "There's no need for one in a town where every commercial release plays usually before it plays anywhere else," he said. "It's a company town that doesn't want anyone else managing the company softball team."

Despite the proliferation of local film festivals and the presence of one of the world's three top film markets, the American Film Market, Ebert said Sundance has become the "de facto Los Angeles film festival."

The city just doesn't provide the same cachet as far-flung locales, said Dawn Moyer-Sims, marketing manager of Outfest, Los Angeles' gay and lesbian festival, which takes place in July. "People here want to go somewhere else to do it. It's exotic to go to Sundance with a bunch of people hopping on a plane with their newly purchased parkas and seeing what this snow stuff is all about. It's exotic to say 'I'm flying off to Cannes and you can reach me on my cell phone,' rather than 'I'm going down the street to the Directors Guild of America.' "

The very nature of Los Angeles--sprawling, chaotic, culturally diverse, professionally jaded--raises the question of whether anyone could create a world-class festival in the world center of the entertainment industry. Jon Fitzgerald, a former director of the AFI Fest, said, "In Los Angeles, you've got the unique combination of being in the industry's backyard, but you have a very diverse cultural community. It's really hard to have something for everybody."

At the same time, festivals have become an increasingly important tool in getting audiences to see films--particularly smaller independent films. "The more the film studios are in the clutches of multinational companies, the fewer opportunities are in the mainstream to make anything quirky," said "A Hollywood Education" author and screenwriter David Freeman.

"As long as festivals keep popping up, there's a chance that some of this newer, more interesting work gets to be shown to the public.

"This is one of those problems that is bigger than show business," he added. "This is a cultural issue that cuts across national lines. Anything the country does that provides the best of what we can make is valuable, and should be treasured and encouraged."

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