On the off chance there’s any doubt they like things big in Texas, consider the inaugural AFI Dallas Intl. Film Festival: Before the sprocket opera screens its first film — and there will be nearly 200 — it will have employed 12 full-time staffers and raised nearly enough money for next year’s fest.
This being Texas, there’s more.
Marvin Hamlisch, Lauren Bacall, David Lynch, Jack Valenti, Sydney Pollack, Veronique Peck and other luminaries are participating in events. The festival is awarding $60,000 in prize money. And the lineup boasts a wide range of foreign films, features, documentaries and toons.
“We don’t just see ourselves as being a Dallas festival, we see ourselves being a Texas and Southwestern festival,” says fest CEO and artistic director Michael Cain, who founded the Deep Ellum Film Festival, which was absorbed by AFI Dallas.
The new event immediately caught on. Organizers announced the festival on Sept. 20. In five months, they received more than 1,200 entries.
“Because of Deep Ellum, we had relationships with other filmmakers,” Cain says.
But Deep Ellum was small potatoes compared with this new initiative.
“There already are a number of fine film festivals in Dallas,” says festival founder and chairman Liener Temerlin, a local ad maven and veteran of the AFI board. “But none of them, in my judgment, are the size and scope that a city like this deserves.”
About 1.2 million people live in Dallas alone, and the combined Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has more than 5 million residents.
Temerlin naturally turned to AFI in launching the festival. Instead of starting small and hoping to snowball into a major event, he championed a more muscular launch strategy reminiscent of the big-bucks, sponsor-heavy model that kicked off the Tribeca Film Fest in 2002.
Like Tribeca, the Dallas event attracted corporate support across multiple tiers — it’s “presented by” Target and features everything from an official airline (American) to an official beer (Budweiser) — adding up to a budget of more than $3 million.
“We’re really trying to provide something that people will sit up and pay attention to right away,” says Christian Gaines, who runs AFI’s festivals department in Los Angeles and worked closely with organizers of the Dallas festival.
According to Gaines, the festival’s heft “is reflected in a lot of ways: obviously in the programming, but also in terms of the prestige and the legitimacy that the sponsors bring to the event.”
“Founding sponsor” Victory Park agreed to pay AFI’s licensing fee. The 75-acre development (and Temerlin client) will serve as the epicenter of the festival, which includes venues around the city and, in some cases, could demand a Dallas-size commute between screenings.
Temerlin says he wants the festival to bring new films to area auds and attract filmmakers to the city.
“It has just been embraced by the citizenry of the town, and everyone wants to help to see it become a very big success,” he says. “Seeing a film festival of this size in middle America is big news to filmmakers.”
Temerlin and Cain have taken pains to be as inclusive as possible. They’ve distributed 1,500 family passes through the North Texas Food Bank and have developed partnerships with other, smaller film festivals in the area.
Chiho Mori, who runs the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, says her organization is co-hosting three movies and that she is personally translating for a Japanese director who will attend AFI Dallas events.
“We hope that this will bring more attention to Dallas and more interest in the film industry to come to Dallas,” she says. “I think it’s going to encourage the people in Dallas and the cities surrounding Dallas to see Dallas as a film-friendly city.”
And she acknowledged, “I don’t think Dallas is known for films, compared to, like, Austin.”
Austin is home to numerous stars as well as the enormously popular South by Southwest film and music fests, which wrapped up their most recent editions this past Saturday and Sunday.
SXSW Film Fest producer Matt Dentler says AFI Dallas has “been very upfront, very considerate every step of the way.”
That, he says, was a relief.
“When we first heard about the dates and obviously the location of this new festival, we were a little concerned and a little disappointed, only because we were afraid initially that there might be a little bit of competition going on and we’d be having tug-of-wars.”
Cain says that wasn’t going to happen. Though AFI Dallas’ site bills it as “the soon-to-be-biggest film festival in the Southwest,” Cain and Temerlin hope that it won’t bigfoot other festivals. They say their plan is to build partnerships, rather than adversarial relationships, around the state.
They’ve been generally successful on that front, and have relationships with most other fests in the city, as well as with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Dallas Museum of Art and other local cultural institutions. So far, they’ve been unable to build a partnership with the USA Film Festival, a 37-year-old fest that begins on April 19, three weeks after AFI Dallas ends.
And though they feel confident that AFI Dallas will be big, they’re not sure how many people it will draw, hoping to attract 20,000 people to the festival’s 52,000 seats.
But Gaines says it’s not fair to judge a festival — even a splashy one like AFI Dallas — based on first-year numbers.
“It’s really hard for me to determine whether something has been a success after one year,” he says. “I always look at festival events in groups of three — three dots on a graph. You can see whether they’re going up or going down.”
He’s betting on up.