The Sundance Film Festival has gone back to the drawing board for this weekend’s Next Fest, the second time the Park City festival has taken its show on the road to Los Angeles.
The festival first came to L.A. last summer with Next Weekend, a four-day event that marked its first U.S. festival outside of Utah. For a weekend at the Sundance-owned Sundance Sunset Cinemas in West Hollywood, the fest showcased 20 features and short films that either had premiered at Sundance or showcased the spirit of innovation in the main festival’s Next program.
But while Next Weekend showcased films that included the Oscar nominee-to-be “Cutie and the Boxer,” the experience left Sundance feeling as if there must be a better way to spotlight its films on the West Coast.
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“We learned a lot doing our first L.A. festival last year,” Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth told TheWrap. “The positives that came out of it were that we felt really strongly about the program and we had a great reaction from the people who were there.”
But, he admitted, there was a downside. “After it was finished, it felt like there wasn’t a lot of impact for those films. That’s part of the impetus for starting an L.A. fest, to help these specialty films connect to a wider audience. We wanted to make a bigger splash for these films than we did last year.”
The revamping has led to Next Fest 14, a four-day event that begins Thursday with a 20th anniversary screening of “Napoleon Dynamite” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, followed by three days of screenings, conversations and concerts at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
The venue itself is a big change, moving the festival from Sundance’s home court to a renovated 1,600-seat downtown theater. “We wanted to reach more people, and the size of the Sundance venues limited us,” said Groth. “And we also wanted to include music, which would have been impossible there.
“The new theater is big enough to really create a critical mass of awareness.”
A key to that awareness is the festival’s musical component. The three evening screenings will be followed by live performances by acts selected by the festival because they “shared an artistic sensibility with the film,” said Groth.
The Friday-night screening of Jeff Baena‘s “Life After Beth” (photo above) will be followed by a performance by Father John Misty; Saturday’s screening of Malik Vitthal’s “Imperial Dreams” will include a performance by the singer-songwriter Tinashe; and Sunday’s Ana Lily Anirpour film “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” will be paired with a set by Warpaint.
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“One of the great things about the Park City festival is its cross-pollination of the arts, so for this one we wanted to give it a musical component to make more noise,” said Groth.
“But we didn’t want to do music from the film – we hoped that people who came to see a specific film might discover music that they would like, and vice versa. It’s a bit of an experiment.”
The slimmed-down slate of six Sundance films chosen for the weekend also include David Kellner’s “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” Alex Ross Perry‘s “Listen Up Philip” and Adam Wingard‘s “The Guest.” For the three screenings that will not include music, Sundance has expanded the post-screening Q&As with filmmakers to include panel discussions with the likes of directors Werner Herzog (after “Kumiko”) and Nicolas Winding Refn (“The Guest”) and writer Bret Easton Ellis (“Listen Up Philip”).
“It came from talking to the filmmakers and saying, ‘Who would you like to have a conversation with?'” said Groth. “A lot of it is about who inspired these filmmakers, and we’re thrilled that people like Werner Herzog and Bret Easton Ellis were open to engaging in conversations about films that are not theirs.”
Next Fest may have trouble drawing enough moviegoers downtown to fill one of the largest movie-theater spaces in Los Angeles, particularly for films that do not have high profiles and aren’t filled with big names (though “Life After Beth” features Aubrey Plaza and Dane DeHaan, while “Listen Up Philip” stars Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss). But Groth says Sundance is “delighted” with ticket sales so far.
“We knew there were going to be some hurdles, trying to get that many people in for films that don’t have recognizable names,” he said. “But luckily, people seem to be getting it.”
Next Fest comes on the heels of Sundance’s recent announcement that it will expand its operations to Hong Kong, where it plans to screen eight films from this year’s Park City festival over two weeks in September. As for the possibility of further expansion beyond Park City, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and London (where it has been presenting a film and music festival for several years), Groth is noncommittal.
“We’re a mission-driven organization, and one of our main purposes is to expand the audience for the kind of films that we support,” he said. “We’re always open to exploring possibilities of expanding those audiences, but it’s something we want to be very strategic about.”