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Jumping January fests

P.S., Santa Barbara, Sundance start fest cycle

Another year, another round on the film festival circuit, which, as far as Hollywood is concerned, begins and ends every January with three significant sprocket operas in the industry’s backyard. The biggest, Sundance, is the country’s most important market for American indies. The other two, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, also attract serious talent and are crucial Academy Award campaign stops.

“Sundance is really the key acquisitions festival for American independents,” says Myriad Pictures prexy Kirk D’Amico, whose financial crisis-themed “Margin Call” premieres at this year’s Sundance.

Myriad’s manager of production and acquisitions, Ari Haas, notes that many films angle to start their festival runs at Sundance and, if the momentum is right, finish — a year later — at Palm Springs and Santa Barbara.

“You’re not really going to Palm Springs or Santa Barbara to look for the premiere of the next big American indie like you are at Sundance,” he says, “but at Sundance, you’re not really looking for films that are aiming to get Academy Award nominations this year. Sundance is the beginning of the cycle and Palm Springs and Santa Barbara are sort of at the end of it.”

For example, Oscar contender “Winter’s Bone” debuted at Sundance 2010. The film’s young lead, Jennifer Lawrence, will get a rising star award at Palm Springs this year. Though “Get Low” preemed at Toronto 2009, the film received its U.S. berth the following Sundance. A year later, star Robert Duvall will collect a career achievement honor at Palm Springs.

Ryan Werner, senior VP of marketing and publicity for IFC Films, has screened pics at all three fests. “Sundance, obviously, is the most important festival in the United States, and one where people not only go to premiere their films, but to buy films and to promote their upcoming releases,” he explains. “Santa Barbara is a regional festival and is also used in the awards push because there are so many Academy voters. Palm Springs is a hybrid; it’s used by the awards season to keep contenders in the mix and get the foreign films and documentaries seen, but it’s also a great festival because people come from around the country, and it’s great for word-of-mouth, so we tend to play a lot of films at Palm Springs.”

Awards consultant Deborah Kolar notes that “the dates are conveniently placed” for Palm Springs because its opening weekend occurs before AMPAS announces its “short list” of foreign films for Oscar consideration, and the festival closes just before ballots are due back at the Academy. (The festival began Jan. 6 and continues until Jan. 17.)

Ed Arentz, managing director of Music Box Films, has several foreign language pics at Palm Springs, including the Venezuelan submission, “Hermano.” Arentz, whose company deals primarily in foreign fare, says having a movie at Palm Springs “is a great way to get Academy members to see a film.”

Darryl Macdonald, executive director of the Palm Springs fest, says Palm Springs tries to show about 45 of the foreign films that are eligible for Academy Awards each year (reduced from previous years, in which programmers tried to screen as many as possible, regardless of quality). He says the fest is “the only place in the world, outside the Academy screening room itself, where people can see a preponderance of all of the films in the running.”

Palm Springs and Santa Barbara also are known for their galas, which bring added attention to awards hopefuls. Though the selection begins in August (and continues until a week before the fest), these honors are important pre-Oscar events.

“They function as a marketing tool,” says Jeff Hill, an industry publicist who recently moved from New York to Palm Springs. “That awards weekend is quite a big thing out here in the desert. All these films that are being honored are in the campaign process — and it’s right before the Academy voters get those ballots.”

Carol Marshall, a publicist for the Santa Barbara festival (which runs Jan. 27 to Feb. 6), notes that her event begins two days after the Academy announces nominees. This year, Santa Barbara will honor Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Nolan, James Franco, Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman and Harrison Ford. Since 2004, 15 of the fest’s honorees have gone on to win Academy Awards, while another 22 were nominated.

“We are deeply ensconced in the awards campaign season,” she says. Marshall points out that instead of being honored at one massive ceremony, award recipients at Santa Barbara each get their own events, accompanied by in-depth conversations popular with attendees.

Though proximity to Oscar may give Palm Springs impact, the programmers see such high-profile events as a way of supporting the emerging talent and lesser-known films, which make up the majority of the festival’s program. “This year, 76 of the 193 films are from first-time directors, and a good chunk of them will be there,” Macdonald notes.

More from the Palm Springs Festival:
Jumping January fests | Palm Springs fest report card | Honorees
Variety’s Indie Impact Award: Mark Wahlberg