Even during a chilly New York November, it takes more than sun-drenched beaches to lure fest-weary Gotham distributors south of the Mason-Dixon line, as organizers of the Fort Lauderdale Intl. Film Festival have learned. Now in its 10th year, the lengthy (19days) and sprawling (10 venues, from Miami to West Palm Beach) event has yet to emerge as more than a well-run and popular regional event. “We’re a tough sell to the Miramaxes, ” concedes exec director Gregory von Hausch.

Why? Timing, for one. The festival, which runs Nov. 1-19, annually fights Mifed in a losing battle for attention. The Toronto and New York fests have bowed the autumn’s buzz-heavy pictures, and Sundance is just around the corner. New Yorkers might well have made the easier trip to the Hamptons (N.Y.) fest only weeks earlier, and the niche-filling Sarasota (Fla.) French Film Festival unspools Nov. 15.

And like other second-tier festivals, Fort Lauderdale is at a disadvantage in competing for premieres. The majority of the more than 70 features screening down South already have been seen by distributors in other locales, and the pictures that haven’t been seen are, generally, a mixed bag of first-time efforts – promising, perhaps, but not quite there yet – and films passed over by the more exclusive events. “It’s not a festival for scouting, ” says an exec at a major arthouse banner.

Still, that arthouse banner did indeed have a representative in Fort Lauderdale – to promote the movies the company was screening.

Indeed, this year’s session has drawn reps from an unprecedented 10 distributors including IRS, Seventh Art and Republic Pictures, but filmmakers looking for deals shouldn’t get their hopes too high: The distribs are, by and large, at the fest to drum up publicity for their own screenings – a “good regional launching pad” is how one New York distributor put it.

Distributor blues

“We were hoping to find a distributor, ” said one disappointed helmer, “but it doesn’t look like this is that kind of thing.”

The tireless von Hausch has made some inroads, though, at least in exposing indie films to a market that had little exposure to arthouse fare in years past. And this year, industry players are expected to turn out for tributes to film vets Michael Caine and Robert Evans.

Then there’s Blockbuster Video. In a good-neighbor community relations move – Blockbuster is based in Fort Lauderdale – the vid chain has become the major corporate sponsor of the festival, contributing about $100,000 of the fest’s $500,000 budget.

Blockbuster night

Needless to say, Blockbuster generates more than a little excitement among filmmakers hoping to get their projects noticed by the video giant. Indeed, von Hausch says tapes of nearly all the films are made available to Blockbuster execs.

Does that mean Blockbuster buyers might be more favorably disposed to fest films when its comes time to stocking store shelves? “We’re not involved with the festival to scout for movies, ” says a Blockbuster spokeswoman. “Our buyers have the utmost respect (for the festival), but we pick our movies strictly on merit.”

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