Sponsors saddle up for inaugural event

DALLAS — In a world that already claims more than 4,000 film festivals worldwide, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival may have created something new: First, the sponsors. Then, the films.

Target will pay more than $1 million for its two-year deal as a presenting sponsor. W Hotel supplies the filmmakers’ hotel rooms. American Airlines handles the air travel (first class);  Lexus, the in-Dallas transportation. Neiman Marcus partnered with Steuben Crystal to create the bauble that AFI Dallas will present to Star Award recipients Lauren Bacall, Sydney Pollack and David Lynch. Even celebrity chef Tom Colicchio kicked in, hosting an event and filmmaker meals at his Craft restaurant.

All told: More than $4 million is in place to screen 190 features and short films March 22 – April 1.

It’s good business sense to the festival’s founder, director and chairman, Liener Temerlin, who made his fortune as the founder of Dallas ad agency Temerlin McClain. A longtime American Film Institute board member who spearheaded its “100 Best…” campaign, the AFI approached him 18 months ago to gauge his interest in fund-raising for a Dallas AFI film school.

He wasn’t interested — or rather, he didn’t think Dallas would have enough interest. But what about a film festival? A really big one? He thought that might work — although he wanted to make sure the money was in place before the idea went any further.

The result was instant film festival: Just add water. Or white water, given the volume and speed with which money flowed into the festival’s coffers.

“Liener brings connections that take this to a whole different level,” says Dallas AFI’s CEO and creative director, Michael Cain, who folded his own seven-year-old local event, the Deep Ellum Film Festival, into the newcomer. “Everyone I called said, ‘Oh, Lanier sent you? Come on in!’ “

Among those now featured in the festival program are urban luxury development Victory Park (co-owned by Ross Perot Jr.), Blockbuster, AT&T, Bank of America, 2929 Entertainment, Budweiser, Neiman Marcus and PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The festival’s board members include development magnate Trammell Crow, promoter Angus Wynne III (whose father created the Six Flags amusement park), Hunt Oil executive Hunter Hunt and current DreamWorks Animation chairman Roger Enrico. Honorary board members include Mark Cuban partner Todd Wagner, Jack Valenti and Howard Stringer.

From a financial perspective, the nascent Dallas festival appears to be a hit. Creatively, it remains to be seen.

Inside the festival’s headquarters (formerly a model two-bedroom luxury condo for the W), a display of the festival’s film posters include several that look as if they’d be more comfortable in the hallways of the American Film Market. Others premiered at Sundance; one advertises the audience award it won at a smaller festival in 2006. Thursday’s opening night film is “Music Within,” a biopic in which Ron Livingston stars as disability activist Richard Pimentel; it premiered at the 2007 Palm Springs Film Festival, followed by a screening at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

Of course, it would be unfair to pass creative judgment on any inaugural film festival. However, its choice of dates put Dallas AFI in an awkward position.

For the first six months of the year, Sundance and Cannes are the unrivaled festival linchpins. Austin’s SXSW used to have dibs on the No. 3 spot, but that position is now threatened by the rise of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Groused one producer at the tail end of last week’s SXSW Film Festival, “I hate going to Tribeca. It’s soulless. I feel like I’m in a weeklong American Express commercial.” Nonetheless, he allowed that he’d bowed to the will of his financiers in seeing several titles go to Tribeca rather than SXSW.

Even SXSW festival director Matt Dentler acknowledges that the Austin event has more soul than money. “The secret weapon is Austin,” he says. “There will always be something attractive in going to Austin. Even our most formal event (the Texas Hall of Fame Awards) isn’t a black-tie gala. And it isn’t really ours — it’s the Austin Film Society. “

Dallas, on the other hand, has never had a hard time showing its wealth. The Dallas AFI will present Target Filmmaker awards of $25,000 in cash to each of the best narrative and documentary features, as selected by their respective juries.

And not far from the festival headquarters, a Ritz-Carlton is scheduled to open in July; a Mandarin Oriental will join the W in Victory Park later this year. Temerlin, who delivered the eulogy for Neiman-Marcus founder Stanley Marcus, points with pride to the retail spaces that line the granite sidewalks on Victory Park Lane. “It’s not New York,” he says, “but these aren’t going to be the stores you see in shopping malls.”

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