Goodbye, WeHo. Hello, Westwood!
In its 12th year, the Los Angeles Film Festival’s on the move — across town. Breaking away from its longtime DGA and Sunset 5 hubs in West Hollywood, the Film Independent-backed event — which kicked off Thursday and runs through July 2 — has relocated to Westwood Village.
The change had been brewing for a few years, but it was kept under wraps until last year’s fest. Fest topper Rich Raddon explains, “The motivation behind the Westwood move was mostly to entice the public to come out, and it’s about building a community where the filmmakers feel they are a part of something.”
Though he admits some die-hard Eastsiders had their reservations, “the hurdles are people’s perceptions about Westwood,” he says. For example, some had “a misunderstanding about the quality of the venues.” But Raddon points out that most of Westwood’s old moviehouses have been refurbished in recent years. “The Crest Theater was bought by a private individual four years ago,” he says. “It now has Dolby, DTS and can play almost every format possible. It’s one of the most pristine theaters in L.A.”
Westwood also has a rich pic history.
“It was the center for cinema,” says Ron Yerxa, producer of LAFF’s closing-night film “Little Miss Sunshine,” referring to Westwood’s heyday in the late 1960s and ’70s. “It’s where I saw ‘Apocalypse Now’ for the first time.”
“Moving the festival to Westwood definitely gave us pause, but there wasn’t another location (in L.A.) where you could have a walking film festival,” says Film Independent’s exec director Dawn Hudson, who credits Raddon for spearheading the switch. “Rich wooed the tenants of Westwood (and) the homeowners association. … He got everyone onboard, and they’ve been unbelievably supportive. They got the vision.”
“We were thrilled to hear of the possibility of the festival coming to Westwood,” says Steve Sann, a local entrepreneur who oversees food and beverage at the W Hotel and is co-chair of the Westwood Host Committee, an advisory group formed specifically to help LAFF get its footing in the area. “The power of getting merchants and business behind the festival really worked in a fantastic way.”
He notes the W Hotel alone will be hosting about a dozen parties during the fest. “We will probably have our best June ever at the restaurant.”
“This festival has united the Westwood community in a way that I haven’t seen in 20 years,” he adds. “A film festival plays to the biggest strengths we have in Westwood — the theaters and our amazing history. Hopefully the public will rediscover Westwood.”
Fest’s anchor theaters are the Landmark Regent, Mann Festival and Majestic Crest theaters. But LAFF did hold on to a screen at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and will unspool “An Inconvenient Truth” in downtown L.A. this Saturday. Fest also continues to program outdoor film events at the Ford Amphitheater near the Hollywood Bowl.
In general, LAFF’s program looks similar to years past. It has two competitive sections, narrative and documentary, which each carry $50,000 prizes.
Among the changes are a couple of new sections, says head programmer Rachel Rosen, noting, “There are two main places where the festival program has expanded.”
Much like the “Midnight” sections at other fests, LAFF’s new Guilty Pleasures sidebar makes room for films that seem too outrageous or violent for the other parts of the fest, Rosen says. “All films have a place at the festival,” she adds, “as long as audiences know what to expect.”
The other new group of pics is dubbed L.A. International, a spotlight for emigre filmmakers . “A festival should highlight what’s great about L.A. but might go unnoticed,” says Rosen. Fest showcases a film from Iranian director Parviz Sayyad as well as China’s Shu Shuen Tong and Korea’s Sang-ok Shin (who died in April).
LAFF boasts 17 world premiere features this year, culled from more than 1,500 feature submissions.
Preems are still the main draw for distributors scouting acquisitions, and the fest is well aware of what sales can do for a burgeoning event’s profile. But Raddon says he resists the temptation to “chase the sale. It’s a very slippery slope; I feel I’ve been burned by it in the past, so I take the high road — deliver really good films for an audience.”
That said, Raddon does believe LAFF has the makings of a market festival. “I’ve always felt it was an advantage and not a disadvantage to have buyers living in L.A.”
Buyers seem to agree. “In the past the festival hasn’t provided for many acquisitions, but we’re paying attention and we are hopeful,” says Roadside Attractions co-prexy Howard Cohen, who is also a Film Independent board member. “It’s on the way up.”
For docu sales specialist Josh Braun, LAFF is a good place to position films for distribution. “During the calendar year, it’s one of the relatively few festivals we take seriously as a sales market as well as a platform to premiere films.”
At this year’s fest, Braun’s Submarine Entertainment is repping Guilty Pleasures title “Wild Seven” and documentary competition film “Deliver Us From Evil,” a buzzed-about acquisitions target concerning a Catholic priest.
Another title high on buyers’ hit lists is narrative competition entry “Ira & Abby,” written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, whose prior L.A. fest entry, “Kissing Jessica Stein,” snapped up the audience award and a deal with Fox Searchlight in 2001. Other targets include docs “Inheritance,” from Oscar winner James Moll, Barry Goldwater profile “Mr. Conservative” and New Orleans-set “A Place to Dance,” plus competition features “Chalk,” “Swedish Auto” and “The Lather Effect.”