Palm Springs Film Festival Targets Hip, Younger Crowd

Event expands to include sections on books and Eastern Europe

At 26, the Palm Springs Film Festival is still a young adult. And in 2015, the festival is expanding its appeal to younger filmgoers, while still focusing on the 160-film strong selection of foreign films, documentaries and U.S. indies that its core audience appreciates.

“Palm Springs is suddenly becoming a destination for young people. It’s only natural that the festival create a home for that audience,” says festival director Darryl Macdonald.

Targeting the hip crowd that now packs the area’s hotels all year-round, the fest has added a late screenings section of edgy, fun films with “subject matter a little further afield,” says Macdonald. Titles include supernatural romance “Spring” and Austrian horror pic “Goodnight Mommy.”

“We want to make sure we’re servicing those viewers as well,” says artistic director Helen du Toit.

Also new is the Book to Screen program, featuring screenings and discussions with screenwriters and authors including “The Descendants” author Kaui Hart Hemmings and “The Hundred-Foot Journey” writer Richard Morais.

The fertile creative climate for Eastern European filmmaking inspired this year’s Eastern Promises section, programmed by Variety critic Alissa Simon, which features several prize-winning titles from the region.

“It’s really rare that you see a whole region giving rise to such an abundance of talent,” says Macdonald.

Eastern Promises selections include Russia’s “Leviathan,” Poland’s “Ida,” Latvia’s “Rocks in My Pockets” (pictured) and Bulgaria’s “The Lesson.”

“It’s a world I don’t see in North American cinema,” says du Toit. “The clash between old world and new world is fascinating. The most exciting new cinema is coming out of Eastern Europe.”

The Power of Words: Book to Screen symposium on Jan. 8 is “another way of enriching the audience’s appreciation of what goes into making a film,” says Macdonald. A keynote session with Chaz Ebert kicks off the day that ends with a conversation with “Still Alice” author Lisa Genova and the film’s producer, Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns.

The festival is still centered around the Regal multiplex, Camelot Theater and Palm Springs Museum of Art Annenberg Theater, while the center of Palm Springs is undergoing some construction at the old mall site near the art museum.

But if all goes well, Macdonald hopes the festival will take over the historic Plaza Theater within the next year. The 1936 Spanish revival style landmark will need city approval and “millions” in renovations, says Macdonald, but having a permanent venue in the heart of the town would boost the festival’s profile in the same way as the Seattle Film Festival’s well-received renovation of the Egyptian Theater.

Returning this year is Variety’s brunch honoring 10 Directors to Watch and other honorees the day after the Palm Springs fest gala, which is Jan. 3.

While organizers work to bring new audiences into the festival, they’re also attempting to take the festival “places we haven’t been before,” says Macdonald. Earlier this year they organized a tour taking films from the shorts festival on the road in surrounding communities.

The final building block in the event’s development is continuing to strengthen industry involvement.

Macdonald says the increase in American films is part of the push to provide more options for viable distribution, with the  New Voices/New Visions section devoted to films without distribution.

While Palm Springs has long been the place for diving deeply into foreign film, more than 30 American movies are on the schedule this edition, up from 20 in most years.

The doc selection has also been expanded to provide a wider selection of talent on view to the business — and it’s also one of the most popular with regular festgoers. The seasoned crowd that packed theaters for “Bill Cunningham New York” a few years ago should warm to 88-year-old Albert Maysles’ doc “Iris,” about 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel.

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