Savvy auds flock to int'l film showplace in the desert

The Palm Springs Film Festival boasts one of the most film-savvy and adventurous fanbases anywhere, drawn to the heady combination of concentrated star power and a wide-ranging international film selection — often gunning for Oscar — that unspools in a beautiful desert resort town.

And unlike other destination festivals, Palm Springs has a featured role in awards season that is a result of purposeful timing: Its gala awards fete (a black-tie event at the convention center Jan. 6) dovetails with Oscar balloting (nominating ballots are due Jan. 23); a number of fest award recipients, including director of the year Jason Reitman, composer T Bone Burnett and actress Helen Mirren, have earned Golden Globes nods; and Acad members are welcome to attend free screenings of foreign-language contenders — 45 of the 65 films submitted for the foreign-language Oscar will unspool at the fest.

Having film-literate audiences makes a difference,” says fest director Darryl Macdonald. “There’s a sense of film appreciation; audiences are interested in being challenged and not just in happy-dappy stories and endings.”

Helen du Toit, the fest’s director of programming, concurs: “I am continually delighted to see how broad-minded the audience is here and how good they are at talent spotting.”

Fest opens with Mirren showcase “The Last Station” and closes with “The Lightkeepers” and in between will unspool 194 films from 70 countries, including world preems “Dark Resonance” (Bangladesh), “Dumbstruck” (U.S./Japan/Bahamas), “Paulista” (Brazil) and “Shoot the Hero” (U.S.), and special presentations of European hit “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (Sweden/Denmark/Germany) and the U.K.’s “Red Riding Trilogy.”

Directors spotlighted by the festival’s Talking Pictures contenders series (which include postscreening Q&As) are culled from the most lauded pics of the year. Helmers Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels are among the five participants. “Each star and major directors talk about how great a festival it is — there’s a great deal of respect for the programming,” Macdonald says.

The advance-pass sales for the upcoming edition are outpacing 2009’s levels. Fest audiences, which tend to skew older, have increased every year, though in 2009 (which saw close to 129,000 attendees) that increase was only 3%. Per Macdonald, the healthiest fiscal indicator is that all previous fest sponsors were retained and new ones added in 2010.

A linchpin of the fest’s programming is the annual focus on one territory, with Australia in the spotlight for 2010: The country is repped by a strong lineup of 10 films such as Cannes’ Camera d’Or winner “Samson and Delilah” and thesp Rachel Ward’s directorial debut, “Beautiful Kate.”

A juried award is given to a feature debut selected from the New Voices/New Visions program. There is also a FIPRESCI international critics’ prize, and programmers choose the John Schlesinger Award for best first feature or doc from 67 eligible films.

Du Toit advises that the number of films selected was paired down by 20 from last year, freeing up additional slots so films could screen three times. She notes, “Our mission is to provide a showcase for the best in international cinema.”

TIP SHEET

What: Palm Springs Film Fest
When: Today through Jan. 18
Where: Palm Springs, Calif.
Web: psfilmfest.org

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more