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Balancing act

Team aims for credibility blended with 'populist' approach

While the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival continues to tout its annual lineup of Hollywood stars as a major asset, the festival is quietly being redefined as a savvier, more relevant festival this year.

It is the second under the stewardship of executive director Darryl Macdonald and director of programming of Carl Spence. Changes include an expanded American independent presence, programming geared toward younger viewers and attempts to reach a Latino audience.

But several questions face the organizers of the event (Jan. 6-17). Can it be both a home to sophisticated international fare and a mix of star-driven Hollywood features, such as its opening gala screening of Samuel L. Jackson-starrer “Coach Carter”? Can it appeal to the local community, which is divided along racial and generational lines, while also drawing members of the Hollywood industry? And can it continue to flaunt its international lineup, as the Sundance Film Festival, with its new World Cinema Competition, and the Santa Barbara Film Festival, with its Latin sidebar and new, earlier date, encroach on its territory with events taking place the same month?

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Macdonald would answer yes to all three questions, and, indeed, he denies any serious redefinition of the fest. “My goals haven’t really changed radically at all from last year,” he says. “I want to move the festival more in the direction of being a vital launch pad for both new films and newly emerging talent, and to attract more industry because that is going to help accomplish the first two goals. And I want to attract more press, as well as more filmgoers.”

These goals, he continues, all go back to the guest list. “Getting more people to Palm Springs is something that I think we accomplish easily through creating more press, having a stronger lineup and inviting stars.”

MacDonald’s vision seems to have the support of the community. According to Earl Greenburg, the festival’s board chairman, the fest is finding increased local financial support. The city of Palm Desert kicked in $50,000, for example, as did Indian Wells, up from $15,000 last year.

But will the formula attract an industry audience? Again, the programmers are optimistic. “There’s more interest from the industry,” asserts Spence. “We have a healthy selection of new and unseen American films and we’ve raised the bar. We’re not showing as many films as we have in the past; we’re being very selective. So yes, Hollywood is paying attention.”

Among the anticipated American entries is “The Last Mogul,” which examines the career of Universal icon Lew Wasserman in a docu based on the controversial bio by Dennis McDougal. More highlights include the world premiere of Raymond De Felitta’s comedy “The Thing About My Folks,” starring Peter Falk and Paul Reiser, and Barra Grant’s “Life of the Party” and Kevin Noland’s “Americano,” both of which Macdonald characterizes as “totally entertaining.”

The organizers have taken specific steps this year to grow their audience. They’ve actively promoted the Cine Latino program, for example, working with new sponsor Univision on radio and TV ads.

The newly inaugurated Super Charged Cinema, featuring latenight screenings of edgier horror, anime and comedy pics, was designed to appeal to younger audiences. The festival has marketed the sidebar via radio and collaborations to area high schools and colleges. They’re also giving students free tickets to the festival’s Talking Pictures program.

“We’re covering the waterfront in terms of reaching out,” says Macdonald, “We’re letting people know they’re a part of what this festival is about.”

The festival is also rich with what Spence calls “hotbeds of national filmmaking.”

Says Macdonald of these emerging national cinemas, “Some of the exciting artists that emerged over the course of the last 10 years have given rise to a whole new generation of talented young filmmakers. We’re seeing a much more personal cinema. It’s invigorating, it’s fresh, and much of it has a comedic edge.”

So while small changes may point toward some refocusing in Palm Springs this year, don’t expect a radical overhaul. “We’re populists,” asserts Macdonald, referring to the festival programming team. which in addition to Spence includes Marie-Pierre Macia, Helen du Toit, Alyssa Simon, Angelo Acerbi and Denis DeLaRoca. “We’re not booking from an ivory tower and we’re not pandering to the lowest common denominator. A film festival should be first and foremost for its audience.”