When the Los Angeles Film Festival announced that it was moving from the Westside to downtown Los Angeles in 2010, the move was greeted with skepticism.
Would Westsiders make the trek downtown? Would a festival that had long struggled to establish an identity find one in a complex, L.A. Live, built around sports and concerts?
And would LAFF, which can't compete with Cannes and Toronto and Sundance as a destination festival and must coax locals to go see indie movies after a normal workday, be able to do that in a location that didn't exactly receive rave reviews when Film Independent held the Spirit Awards there four months earlier?
For the most part, the move has worked: LAFF has set attendance records downtown, and the L.A. Live facilities have proved to be hospitable to a festival that will kick off its third year in that setting with a screening of Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love" on Thursday night.
The festival even survived a potentially disastrous timing coincidence that first year, when LAFF's opening-night screening of "The Kids Are All Right" took place a block away from where the Lakers were playing Game 7 of the NBA finals.
The year, Staples Center tenants the Kings obliged by winning the Stanley Cup three days before the festival started — and while the buzz from their Thursday victory parade might linger downtown, it likely won't snarl festival traffic.
Every year, of course, festival organizers have to come up with more reasons to lure moviegoers back downtown. (Those organizers now include festival director Stephanie Allain, taking over for the first time from Rebecca Yeldham.) Here are five of this year's reasons:
When David Ansen was made artistic director of the festival in 2010, the longtime film critic said he would have no problem booking films that had already played in previous festivals. He has stuck to that philosophy, which means that LAFF is going to be the L.A. debut for a number of films that have won awards and garnered attention at other festivals this year.
At the top of the list is Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" (above), a wild and invigorating bayou-set yarn that took Sundance by storm and went on to win the Camera d'Or for the best first feature at Cannes.
Also on the schedule is Adam Leon's "Gimme the Loot," an adventure story about two teen graffiti artists in the Bronx, which won the Jury Prize at SXSW and played in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, as well as Jake Schreier's "Robot and Frank," which was warmly received at Sundance.
The Sound of Music
In addition to a number of music-videos, an artist-in-residency from composer Danny Elfman and a "Music in Film" night at the Grammy Museum, the festival has programmed a number of films to which music is central.
Two are upcoming releases from Sony Pictures Classics: "Searching for Sugar Man" (below), a remarkable look at the lost '70s rock artist Rodriguez and his unlikely success on another continent, and "Neil Young Journeys," director Jonathan Demme's third concert film, featuring the mercurial rock artist.
The festival also will show "Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass," an off-the-cuff concert film featuring such legends as Willie Dixon, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Doc Watson. Shot in musicologist Alan Lomax's apartment in 1961, it was never before shown publicly – and its LAFF premiere will be followed by a concert.
Among the other music films are "Big Easy Express," with Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes and Old Crow Medicine Show.
There's even a LAFF movie called "The History of Future Folk," with this description in the LAFF catalog: "Aliens from the planet Hondo cancel their plans of world domination to form a bluegrass band and fall in love in this wonderfully odd, surprisingly sweet sci-fi musical comedy."
Finally, "The Last Elvis" is an Argentinean film about an Elvis Presley impersonator from Buenos Aires.
Like many film festivals, LAFF is typically strong on the documentary front – in recent years, its doc programming has included the standouts "Marwencol," "Waiting for Superman," "Senna," "Wish Me Away" and "The Two Escobars."
This year, entries include Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War," which stunned Sundance audiences with its examination of the epidemic of rape in the military. The film will have a free community screening on Saturday afternoon.
Other docs include "Call Me Kuchu," about an openly gay activist in homophobic and AIDS-plagued Uganda; "The Iran Job," about an American basketball player who plays a season with an Iranian team; the fashion-model doc "About Face"; and Lauren Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles," a disturbing look at how economic hard times affect even the super-rich.
The oddest of the festival's sections might be its free community screenings – because they range from big box-office hits to much smaller films.
The big hits are "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and a "dance-along" outdoor screening of "Dirty Dancing." But the free screenings also include "The Invisible War"; a doc about Father Greg Boyle and his gang intervention program, "G-Dog"; and the multimedia project "Question Bridge: Black Males."
Another film, "Luv" (left), was developed in Film Independent's Project Involve, a training and mentorship program for filmmakers from underrepresented communities. An urban drama starring Common and Michael Rainey Jr., the film is Sheldon Candis' directorial debut.
In 2010, the biggest event at LAFF was the premiere of "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," which filled the enormous Nokia Theater and caused fanatic fans to camp out in the L.A. Live plaza for days in order to catch a glimpse of stars Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.
It was a huge event and something of a sideshow (below), with some festival organizers quick to point out that was more of a LAFF-adjacent screening than an actual part of the festival.
The following year the Nokia was used for the premiere of "Green Lantern."
This year, thankfully, is calmer, and more focused on the kind of films that belong in a film festival. The glitziest, most mainstream screening is probably the Monday-night premiere of Disney/Pixar's "Brave," but that event it taking place in Hollywood, as the newly refurbished Dolby Theatre.
The most mainstream downtown premiere might be the closing night film, "Magic Mike," the male-stripper movie with Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum – but even that has film-festival credibility, since it was directed by Steven Soderbergh.
The 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival begins on Thursday and runs through June 24. More information is available at www.LAFilmFest.com/