L.A. Film Festival’s Home-Court Disadvantage

It’s not easy programming a festival in the movie industry’s back yard, but LAFF organizers are clear about what they want

Home-court advantage may be a big deal for the Lakers – but for the film festival that kicks off on Thursday night in downtown Los Angeles, staging a movie event in the home city to the entertainment industry is a double-edged sword.

Certainly, the Los Angeles Film Festival has access to talent, which has helped it attract the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck, Roger Corman and the premieres of “Despicable Me” (photo below) and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.”

But unlike, say, the Sundance, Cannes or Telluride festivals, it also faces an audience that isn’t in town just to attend the festival; instead, most patrons will see the movies after they get off work, when it takes some impetus to lure movie-sated Angelenos downtown.

“This is not to put down the challenges of mounting a festival in a remote location, because you’ve got to get them there in the first place,” says festival director Rebecca Yeldham. “But once you do get them there, they’re captive. And they’re very happy to get up at 8 in the morning to see an obscure silent film that has been discovered in somebody’s vault in New Zealand.

Despicable Me“In L.A., they’re not captive. We have to earn their participation every single day.”

LAFF, which has been run by Film Independent (the organization that also presents the Spirit Awards) since 2000, faces other challenges as well. It takes place a couple of months too early to be a prime showcase for awards-season movies, while it doesn’t have the history as a film market that might attract a large contingent of buyers.

So what is it? It’s a little bit indie, a little bit mainstream; it’s for cineastes who want to see 50-year-old movies from obscure Argentinian director Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, and for teenage girls who want to scream as Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner walk the red carpet at the “Eclipse” premiere, which is being hosted by LAFF without being an official festival selection.

It’s not a film market, but it’ll teach filmmakers how to market and distribute their films; it’s not an awards-season showcase, but it has offered free tickets to Academy members who want to see films in the dramatic, documentary or international sections.

And while that diversity may be confusing, it is exactly the point, say Yeldham and Film Independent’s executive director, Dawn Hudson.

“Our appetite continues to grow, but the trajectory this festival is on is one that we very much dreamed of from the time we took it over 10 years ago,” says Hudson. “We wanted a festival that represents all of Los Angeles, and that is accessible to the people of Los Angeles.”

“We really envisioned this as a community film festival,” she adds. “And it just so happens that this community is a community of very sophisticated filmgoers with a very deep and wide knowledge and love of film.”

Adds Yeldham, who was recruited to run the festival last year, “I have a very strong idea of what we’re doing here. We want to be the Los Angeles film festival. It’s a festival for a broad, populist taste, a festival for our city that embraces the spectrum of films and filmmaking that’s going on in our city and around the world.”

To that end, the name of the festival was changed from the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival to the Los Angeles Film Festival soon after FIND took it over. Before last year’s festival, the organization recruited Yeldham, a longtime FIND board member, former Sundance programmer and movie producer (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “The Kite Runner,” “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” and the upcoming “On the Road”) to become festival director; earlier this year, Yeldham hired longtime Newsweek critic David Ansen to serve as the LAFF artistic director.

“I wanted to become an instigator for true ownership of this festival by our industry and our town,” says Yeldham. “When people in the industry say ‘Why doesn’t L.A. have a great film festival?,’ I’m telling them to actually come together and help to make it great.”

If there’s confusion about the role of the festival, says Hudson, it’s because Film Independent and the Spirit Awards are specifically devoted to independent film.

“I understand that people think there’s a contradiction in Film Independent producing a film festival with the entire spectrum of films,” she says. “But that is by design. We knew from the beginning that if we were to create a festival that we want to go to, it has to embrace the full spectrum of fantastic and original filmmaking.

“We’re not trying to be a festival of obscure films only. There are many festivals that do that. This is another city, another place, another time. This is Los Angeles, and we are not film snobs. The idea is to create an experience of the full spectrum, whether that’s ‘Despicable Me,’ which is a fantastic animated film, or Lisa Chodolenko’s superb ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ or a 1913 silent film on the life of Richard Wagner (left)."

The bulk of LAFF’s more than 100 screenings and events is devoted to independent films, many of them unlikely to receive any additional theatrical showings in Los Angeles. To that end – and recognizing that the market is so weak for independent film these days – the festival is offering its filmmakers seminars and meetings that focus on taking an active role in the marketing of their films in these uncertain times.

(In addition, a two-day filmmakers retreat hosted by guest director Kathryn Bigelow will take place at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California.)

The screenings will largely take place at the Regal Cinemas in L.A. Live complex, but also at other theaters around downtown Los Angeles, from the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway to REDCAT in Disney Hall. (On weekends, when most of the daytime screenings take place, a shuttle will leave from L.A. Live to take festivalgoers to the other sites.)

The roofdeck of L.A. Live’s west garage, which was the location of this March’s Spirit Awards, will serve as a festival village, with a ticket center and filmmakers lounge.

The move to downtown L.A. came after the Westwood neighborhood, which had been the site of the last few festivals, suffered so many theater closings (and threatened closings) that LAFF could not count on having enough places to screen its films. The downtown location, says Yeldham, offers about the same number of seats as Westwood, but more theaters.

(Her count doesn’t include the 7,000-seat Nokia Theater – which, in a scaled-down configuration, will be used for the “Eclipse” and “Despicable Me” screenings.)

Last year’s festival attracted more than 80,000 patrons.

“I want the films that are part of this festival to have amazing screening experiences,” says Yeldham, who credits a 2009 LAFF screening of “Anvil!” with transforming the theatrical life of that film. “I certainly want press here, and I want buyers to attend. But first and foremost, I want the audience to show up and pack the house and really to express their interest in films, and for that to reverberate.”

And while the festival is occasionally criticized for its preponderance of corporate sponsors, starting with the Los Angeles Times but including dozens of others, neither Hudson nor Yeldham is remotely inclined to apologize for the money.

“If you’re in a city where there is no state support of the arts and no individual philanthropy towards film, you tell me how you’re going to mount a film festival when you’re selling tickets for 10 and 12 dollars,” Yeldham says.

“And we’ve never been asked to compromise the program. We programmed a documentary last year, ‘Bananas,’ despite the threat of a lawsuit from Dole, and our sponsors stood behind us. Nothing has been programmed reflective of a corporate interest. And the thought that you can program with integrity, with a passion, and these corporations, will give you the means to put on that show – I’m very happy to take their money and their support.”