L.A. Film Festival mixes biz, buzz

Event hopes for industry crowd despite downtown move

The Los Angeles Film Festival is looking to become even more industry-friendly as it moves from Westwood to Downtown.

“I guess we’re going to be spending a lot of time on the 10,” sighed a producer at the fest’s industry kick-off party at Red O on Monday night. “Take Olympic,” advised an acquisitions assistant.

But even if some Westside-centric industry members are unfamiliar with the finer points of getting Downtown, the 16th edition of the festival, sponsored by Film Independent, has recruited a significant number of Hollywood names for lectures, screenings and networking event.

Organizers of the event, which opens Thursday with Focus’ “The Kids Are All Right” and runs to June 27, hope to play off the hipness quotient of the Downtown L.A. arts scene despite the fest’s base at the quintessentially corporate L.A. Live complex adjacent to the Staples Center.

The 10-day event will spread across Downtown and farther, to venues such as the historic Orpheum Theater, Disney Hall’s Redcat and Hollywood’s open-air Ford Amphitheater.

Film producer and fest director Rebecca Yeldham, who joined just before last year’s edition, has added fest conversations with Sylvester Stallone, Roger Corman, John Lithgow, Christopher Nolan and Ben Affleck as well as Kathryn Bigelow, who is hosting the pre-fest filmmakers retreat at Skywalker Ranch.

Summit picked the fest to premiere “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” because the distrib wanted to tap into Downtown buzz, Yeldham said. “I would love the industry to get behind the growth of this festival,” she said.

Yeldham expects a strong presence of independent buyers at the festival, but cautioned, “one can’t set out to program a festival” hoping for films to get picked up.

The fest is continuing its speed-dating sessions, pairing fest filmmakers with established industry members for advice and networking, and this year also is offering free tickets to Academy members.

Recognizing the crisis in independent distribution, the indie finance workshop has been recast as the “Seize the Power” marketing and distribution symposium Saturday and Sunday. “It’s a bigger conundrum right now,” Yeldham said. “The job’s not over once you’ve made the movie.”

The Downtown base should prove appealing to potential filmgoers from neighborhoods such as Silver Lake and Pasadena, but some bizzers are disappointed that the fest left Westwood, which no longer has enough theaters available.

“I don’t approve of it being Downtown,” said “Bitter Feast” producer Larry Fessenden, who added that he enjoyed walking around the fest in Westwood Village. “Bitter Feast” reps an example of the fest’s eclectic programming — the horror pic about a murderous chef takes an arty approach, with an appearance by chef Mario Batali.

Organizers are cheerful about the Downtown challenge. “We toyed with the idea of having two bases, but decided it’s important to have a walkable footprint,” Yeldham said. “There’s such a fun energy Downtown right now.”

A fest village atop the L.A. Live parking structure will provide schmooze stations with food trucks, a bar and music.

Meanwhile, former Newsweek film critic and first-year artistic director David Ansen said programmers wanted to reflect the diversity of L.A. through both high and low culture, with a more international slant this year. Of U.S. narrative films, he pointed to Brett Haley’s Florida-set “The New Year” with promising young thesp Trieste Kelly Dunn, as well as “Cold Weather” — “Not a false note,” he said.

He also said that women directors rep a higher than usual percentage of competition filmmakers. He’s proud of “Dog Sweat,” which was made secretly in Iran, and will have the filmmaker attending. “It deals with stuff you just don’t see in American movies,” Ansen said.

Ansen’s wide range of taste is shown by a rare retrospective for forgotten Argentine auteur Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, to gala screenings of films seen at earlier fests like “Cyrus,” to the world premiere of Percy Adlon’s “Mahler on the Couch.”

Though the fest’s closing night is the premiere of Universal’s “Despicable Me,” festivals in general are not about showing big studio movies, Ansen said. “What I like is that we can involve the industry in another way.”

“What’s different from other festivals is that we’re in Hollywood. All these veterans are there for young filmmakers to talk to.”

In a difficult time for specialty films, the festival is balancing its independent roots with support from deeper-pocketed companies such as L.A. Live owner Anshutz Entertainment Group and industry sponsors such as the DGA, Kodak and Technicolor.

“Everything about the fest is a little different this year,” Yeldham said, “The ‘Twilight’ premiere was a real vote of confidence.”

Summit president of worldwide marketing Nancy Kirkpatrick said the premiere was planned to support the LAFF “as a world-class film festival” as well as to tubthump the city’s burgeoning L.A. Live/Nokia venue.

“We needed a location that could accommodate the large number of guests we are expecting as well as a place offering ample space for fans to come out and show their support and share in the excitement of the film’s upcoming release,” she said.

With a bigger-than-ever industry presence and a new location, this year could be a turning point for the fest. “I’m fascinated to see what our audience will be like,” Ansen said.

“We’ve been very well-treated here,” said Fessenden, who has had titles in past fests. “It feels like a great place to launch your movie, and it clearly has more muscle now.”

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