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Rowdy AFI Fest precursor ignited L.A. film fire

Filmex organizers altered town's whole approach to film

For those of us who literally grew up with Filmex — formally known as the Los Angeles Intl. Film Exposition — the reality that it began 35 years ago (Nov. 4, 1971) is a stunning sign of how the city’s film culture has grown up, and also what it has missed.

For high school and young college film students, such as this writer, who had their first deep-dish exposure to world film through Filmex’s steady annual diet of movies from the lowest brow to the highest art pinnacles, the festival fundamentally changed their lives.

For Hollywood, whose old-guard establishment mightily resisted any kind of local festival showcasing non-American work, the organizers of Filmex formed a revolutionary cadre that stormed the barricades and altered the town’s whole approach to film.

As Variety critic Todd McCarthy observed in his 1993 obit for Filmex founder-leader-impresario Gary Essert, Los Angeles was something of an empty shell of a filmgoing center for movies beyond our borders before Filmex.

Only the Laemmle family-run chain (still going strong) regularly promoted and projected the stuff, but Essert’s vision went far beyond sure audience-grabbers like Truffaut, Fellini and Chabrol.

“It seemed ridiculous to many of us,” recalls Filmex assistant programming director Ruth Gribin, “that the film capital of the world lacked a real festival. The idea was to do a public festival, the opposite of Cannes, but since this wasn’t a widely known concept, it had to be explained to everybody — Hollywood, what we then called ‘film exporters,’ producers and distributors. Putting your new American movie in an event like this was a risk, since nobody knew what the outcome would be.”

It took the perspicacity of George Cukor and Gregory Peck, hugely influential supporters of Filmex and movers and shakers in the Academy and beyond, to finally convince the Acad and AFI to lend monetary and other support. Both institutions, as traditional standard-bearers of American film culture, had long been strong voices against anything remotely like Filmex.

Beverly Walker, who had previously handled press relations for the New York Film Festival before taking on the same chores for the first Filmex, says that “just a day or two after the first shows, we could already see that this was going to be a really big thing, and that the city had embraced it. People were starving for this. And since everybody — and I mean everybody — had to buy a ticket, everyone mingled, from Jack Nicholson to a family from a tiny ethnic community somewhere in the city.”

This populist sense put a brand on the festival from the start, though it was also unmistakably the place for hipster Hollywood, L.A. avant-gardists (every year featured experimental programs) and cinephiles.

There were fabulous and rowdy opening nights, increasingly frenzied and unforgettable marathons (from Billy Wilder to sci-fi), unspoolings such as Alejandro Jodorwosky’s “The Holy Mountain” in a pot-smoke-filled Paramount Theater (now the squeaky-clean El Capitan); plus secret sneak previews, whose opening moments often set audiences into rock-concertlike hysteria.

Walker remembers dressing up for the first opening night at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, “and as I walked out of cramped offices at the Hollywood Roosevelt across the street, I was greeted by elephants, fire-eaters and sword-swallowers. Had Gary gotten city permits for all of these? Of course not! But that was pure Gary — put on a great show.”

Every Filmex vet has his or her list of helmers discovered at the festival; some among countless others that stand out include Theo Angelopoulos, Werner Herzog, Otar Iosseliani, Errol Morris, Manoel de Oliveira, Arturo Ripstein, Mrinal Sen, Andrei Tarkovsky, Paul Verhoeven, Lars von Trier and Peter Weir.

Sadly, reports AFI Fest programmer Shaz Bennet and lead programmer of the fest’s 24-hour marathon of Filmex faves, few if any of these directors’ films and many others suggested by an advisory committee (comprising several Filmex vets) are available to be screened. “While we can get silent films,” Bennet says, “finding films from the ’70s in decent shape is extremely difficult.”

Barbara Smith, Filmex’s longtime business director and the inheritor of Essert’s dream of the American Cinematheque (first dubbed the Los Angeles Film Center), reflects that “it’s hard to convey to folks who weren’t there what it was like to have a festival with 1,200- and 800-seat theaters that were filled five times a day for as many as 24 days, and with a ticket system without computers — and with shows that started on time. Can you imagine?

“The key,” says Smith, “is that Filmex was the work of a large group of people, with big selection committees that would sit for months watching submitted films. That’s why the programming was so wide-ranging: because it reflected a scope of tastes.”

Recalling a 1976 program of new Cuban films — requiring sharp-shooters as security on the roof of Century City’s now-demolished ABC Entertainment Center — Smith notes with dry understatement: “We weren’t swayed much by outside opinion.”

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