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Hollywood Film Festival Shines a Light on Topical Issues

Despite its glamorous name and location, the Hollywood Film Festival has struggled to find its identity since its founding in 1997. But this year’s edition (Oct. 16-19) is getting a radical overhaul and rebranding from new owner Jon Fitzgerald and his philanthropic company CineCause.

“What makes the new Hollywood Film Festival unique is that we’re really emphasizing socially conscious films — both documentary and narrative — and then packaging them with educational presentations where we have special guests doing keynotes,” says Fitzgerald, last year’s HFF director who also co-founded Slamdance in 1995 and directed the AFI, Santa Barbara, Abu Dhabi and Topanga fests.

The fest, based at the ArcLight Hollywood and branded as Entertainment for Change, will screen some 60 movies. And while Fitzgerald’s goal is to avoid “the usual glitz and glamor associated with film festivals,” there’s no end of socially conscious stars who are directly involved in many of the featured films.

Emma Thompson produced and narrates “Sold,” the human-trafficking drama directed by Jeffrey Brown; Sharon Stone produced clean-water documentary “My Name Is Water,” which will world premiere; Liam Neeson narrates environmental doc “Love Thy Nature”; and Matt Damon’s Water.org will be part of the fest’s Water Crisis presentation.

“People always associate ‘Hollywood’ with glamor and celebrities, but there’s also a lot of stars who are very actively involved in global issues and who help connect the dots between their power as celebrities, films about issues, and making changes in the world,” Fitzgerald said.

HFF will also recognize “issue-conscious” filmmakers in its CineCause Spotlight section, and actor and activist Harry Belafonte has been awarded the first Cine Cause ChangeMaker Icon, with daughter Gina speaking on his behalf at the event.

In addition to “My Name Is Water,” directed by Justin Arana, the eclectic opening-night lineup of films includes the world premiere of “Pancakes,” directed by Yasu Shibuya, which follows the lives of three romantically challenged characters in Tokyo, and the U.S. premiere of “Becoming Bulletproof,” screening in the Celebrate Hollywood section. Directed by Michael Barnett, it follows a diverse group of actors living with disabilities who set out to make their first Western.

The fest will also introduce a Horizons category dedicated to first-time filmmakers, “so it’s a move back to my Slamdance roots,” Fitzgerald says.

It features a number of award-winning but lower-profile films, including “Before I Disappear,” written and directed by Shawn Christensen, which won the SXSW Audience Award and feature prize at Vail, Colo.; Andy Landen’s “Sequoia,” which won the Rainier Llama Award at the Rainier Independent Film Festival; and “Sister,” directed by David Lascher and starring Barbara Hershey, winner at Traverse City Film Fest (founded by Michael Moore).

“New young talent is vital to Hollywood, so we feel it’s very important to let the industry see it. We feel that being right here in Hollywood makes it perfect for introducing new films and filmmakers that may be unfamiliar. We’re not going to just rehash what came out of Toronto and so on, but showcase talent that might have slipped through the cracks.”

Looking to the future, Fitzgerald says his goal is to make “this festival relevant and different — and show another side of Hollywood by anchoring it with social-impact films. It’s a unique angle, and frankly, not that much of a stretch, given that CineCause was created to connect such films to related causes.”

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