L.A. fest growing up

Westwood move, Times partnership among firsts

If Sundance has grown up to become the granddaddy of U.S. film fests, the L.A. Film Festival is the teenager trying to find its identity.

Film Independent, host of the event, hopes some of that teen angst will be soothed when the 11-day fest opens today at its new home in Westwood Village. Another boost: The Los Angeles Times has signed on as premier sponsor, a partnership worth millions.

L.A. may be the home of the movie biz, but it hasn’t had a not-to-be-missed film fest since Filmex, the hip, groundbreaking yearly event founded in 1971 by Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams.

“Film festivals in Los Angeles are sort of preaching to the choir,” says one veteran publicist. “Studio executives and producers want to leave town so they can let loose, which they can’t do here.”

This might explain the growing strength of the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara fests, which provide quick getaways convenient to Hollywood.

With the indie market maturing, the film fest faces an uphill battle in terms of becoming a major North American acquisitions market, as Sundance and Toronto are.

That doesn’t mean buyers won’t occasionally see something they can’t leave the L.A. Film Fest without. In 2001, Fox bought “Kissing Jessica Stein” after it preemed there.

Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson and fest direct Rich Raddon want the festival to be a galvanizing event with broad appeal.

They hope this will set the fest apart from its brethren, which offer a buffet of choices. Carlos de Abreu’s Hollywood Film Fest, held in October, is notably celeb-centric. The AFI Los Angeles Film Festival, which convenes in early November, is statelier in style, stressing its international focus and alliance with the indie film biz.

Over the next 11 days, L.A. Film Fest will unspool screenings including three films handpicked by fest guest director George Lucas and sidebars like Dark Wave and Guilty Pleasures.

On the other end of the spectrum, parents anxious to find something to do with their kids can attend family day on July 1, enjoying free screenings of Pixar movies and other kiddie pics. A portion of Broxton Avenue will be closed for the day as real-life animals help Par promote “Charlotte’s Web.”

Across town at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, Leonard Cohen will turn out for a screening of Lionsgate docu “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” on Saturday, while the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones will host a screening of docu “The Filth and the Fury” on July 1.

On Saturday, Al Gore will attend a free outdoor screening of his environmental docu “An Inconvenient Truth” at the California Plaza downtown.

Fest opens tonight with the L.A. preem of Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” marking the first time it has launched with a studio pic.

“We want to be fun, but smart. Los Angeles is a glamorous town, and we hope some of that spectacle is infused into the festival,” Raddon said.

He and Hudson refuse to apologize for the fact that they continue to screen films previously seen at Sundance, Toronto and Cannes.

Last year, both the L.A. and the AFI fests drew attendance of about 60,000. With the move to Westwood and the new Los Angeles Times partnership, Film Independent expects attendance to swell by about 20,000 this year.

Raddon and Hudson said there were 120,000 fest guides printed last year; last weekend, 1.3 million fest guides turned up as inserts in the L.A. Times.

In Westwood, the festival is taking over theaters and other venues mostly within walking distance of each other, while UCLA has turned over two enormous parking lots, also within walking distance. Anjelica Huston is among the luminaries hosting poolside chats at the W Hotel, while filmmaker Neil LaBute and others will discuss the biz at the Hammer Museum.

“The obstacles to making a great film festival in L.A. are pretty obvious,” said Hudson. “The city is really spread out. We need to lure people out of their comfort zones.”

The AFI Fest, held in the fall and headquartered at the Arclight complex in Hollywood, has taken some knocks for being difficult to get to from the American Film Market, which is held during the same time period in Santa Monica. By partnering, AFI and AFM hoped to boost the profile of both events. (Filmex was absorbed into the AFI Fest in the mid-1980s.)

Raddon said the L.A. Film Fest, which wraps July 2 with the L.A. preem of Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” wants to be “celebratory and all-inclusive,” despite the challenges of establishing a top-tier fest in Los Angeles.

“Believe me, if it was easy, people would have done it long ago,” Raddon said.

(Nicole LaPorte contributed to this report.)

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