LAFF making plans to expand

Change is the name of the game at the 8-year old Los Angeles Film Festival. Last year it joined up with the Independent Feature Project/West and shortened its name. This year, new festival programmer Rachel Rosen and LAFF director Richard Raddon are planning to expand the fest in several different directions.

“When we really started thinking about what would make a great film festival here in L.A., we realized you have to play to the assets of the location — the great weather, the industry, great energy and great audiences, who can be critical but they’re also the most appreciative,” says Raddon.

Returning for his third year as director, he says he’s working on solving the riddle of why L.A. has never quite had the important film festival it deserves. “I think you’ll really see a difference in the feel of the festival this year.”

Raddon says he was inspired by how the IFP/West’s Independent Spirit Awards have grown in popularity by giving participants a uniquely L.A. experience, and he hopes that same feeling will translate to the festival. Seeking a less crowded and sunnier space in the fest calendar, the event has been moved from April to June 21-29, which should improve film availability. Taking advantage of summer weather, the fest will add outdoor screenings at the John Anson Ford Theater and the Santa Monica Pier as well as a series of poolside chats with filmmakers at the Chateau Marmont. The fest’s new headquarters at the Sunset Laemmle theater complex will include an open-air VIP terrace and “porch parties,” taking advantage of the outdoor courtyard.

More cash prizes will definitely add to the event’s visibility: Target Stores has kicked in $50,000 for the prize for best American narrative feature, the largest cash prize given by any major U.S. fest. Skyy Vodka will provide $5,000 prizes for four short films, and a documentary prize also will be honored.

Former San Francisco Film Festival programmer Rosen plans to tighten up the schedule as well as add an international section. With about a dozen American narrative features and about the same number of international pics, Rosen says she is programming “significantly” fewer films. “I want to do the most for the films that are in the festival — by choosing fewer films, we can do better for them.”

LAFF is developing a reputation as a fest that treats filmmakers well, and Raddon has plans to involve the participants even more. Preceding the fest, a two-day retreat in Ojai, hosted by the guest director (a prominent filmmaker to be announced soon) will provide an informal opportunity for the invited filmmakers and other creatives.

“They treated us like guests of honor,” says director Josh Apter, whose film “Kaaterskills Falls” won the critics prize last year. “They really went out of their way to make you feel comfortable and make you feel at home.”

Apter says he had requests for several meetings after the prize announcement, and that although it’s a “weird little movie,” he hopes that the attention generated by the fest award and the Independent Spirit nomination will lead to more distributor interest.

Raddon and Rosen hope to diversify the programming to better reflect L.A.’s many communities and cultures. “L.A. is a really international city — I don’t think that American independent films always reflect as much diversity as there in the city,” says Rosen.

A prominent new independent film will open the fest, but many of the other events will be less conventional. “Some of the things I want to do, I won’t even call them straight films — what’s important is participation of people, some of the special events have a human element, they’re sort of out there,” says Rosen, “for example, live music and film go together really well.”

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