PALM SPRINGS — It may be the 15th edition of the Palm Springs Festival, but the watchword at this desert confab of world cinema is change.
Fresh faces begin with exec director Darryl MacDonald, returning to Palm Springs a decade after finishing a four-year stint from 1989-93, and programming director Carl Spence, who is coming from the San Francisco festival and has worked alongside MacDonald at the Seattle fest (where latter remains in charge).
In one of the rare cases of a U.S. festival receiving primary support from municipal rather than corporate backers, the City of Palm Springs has taken over as main sponsor, ponying up $350,000 and replacing longtime backer Nortel Networks.
As opening weekend winds up, the most noticeable change for audiences is a newly refurbished theater complex (formerly the Courtyard), now operated by the Signature exhib chain and serving as fest’s central screening site. Signature took over the seven-screen house not long after MacDonald and Spence came aboard in early September and unveiled the complex on opening day, Friday.
With stadium rakes, back-friendly leather chairs, larger screens and upgraded sound systems, cinemas feel like a huge makeover from the rundown Courtyard. Unlike past use of the facility, all screens are dedicated to the event, creating a markedly more energetic mood as consistently large crowds circulate.
Attendance is close to or at sell-out for most screenings and appears set to exceed total 2003 attendance (75,000) by 15%, according to MacDonald.
Many of Spence’s programming associates are also newcomers, including former Cannes Directors Fortnight chief Marie-Pierre Macia, vet Latin American programmer Denis DeLaRoca and indie film producer and former Seattle and Toronto programmer Helen du Toit.
Palm Springs’ most distinctive element continues to be the showcasing of many of the Oscar foreign-language film contenders. This appears to be stronger than ever, with 53 of the 56 selections on view (including just-added Ivan Fila drama from Slovakia, “The King of Thieves”), confirming MacDonald’s observation: “Palm Springs tends to be extremely well known in the major film centers of Europe, Asia and elsewhere, and producers want their Oscar selections shown here.”
That this awareness factor is ironically greater abroad than in nearby Los Angeles is a result of fest’s pronounced stress on non-Yank filmmakers, said MacDonald, as well as “how this festival is kind of a best-kept secret in the show business capital. Changing that perception is a case of marketing, so people have it on their radar alongside Sundance. Once we have a full year to prepare, the bar will be raised very high.”
Additional Oscar-related sections include newly dedicated slots to widely perceived contenders in the docu and shorts categories as well as animated features on the Acad’s pre-nom short list.
The fest’s lineup of 197 features includes 69 North American and U.S. premieres.
Given the highly compressed prep schedule confronting MacDonald and Spence, as well as the vastness of the schedule and the reopening of the Signature complex, fest’s early days ran fairly smoothly, with only two pics canceled due to delivery hiccups.
Artistically, caliber of films repping all continents remains at Palm Springs’ traditionally high standard, with controversy dogging a few entries.
Varun Khanna’s potent, unflinching American indie “Beyond Honor” is sure to provoke strong and varying responses for its bold depiction of forced female genital mutilation of a daughter in an Arab-American family, while Bruno Dumont’s fest-traveling “Twentynine Palms” arrives here, where it was lensed, very much a sore topic for locals who claim Dumont and crew misrepresented their plans prior to production.
Sunday night gala, emceed by “Entertainment Tonight’s” Mary Hart, provides the fest with its traditional celeb quotient as it honors Kevin Costner, Richard Zanuck, Naomi Watts, Anthony Minghella, Danny Elfman and Sidney Sheldon.
Fest runs through Jan. 19.