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L.A. Film Fest Renews Its Commitment to Diversity

Whether it’s San Diego State professor Martha Lauzen’s annual survey of women working in key positions on Hollywood’s top box office earners — resulting in woefully low percentages that have remained stagnant dating back to 1998 — or the absence of African Americans competing in the top categories of this past year’s Oscar race, diversity in the movie industry is an issue that simply won’t die.

But instead of bemoaning the lack of progress, Stephanie Allain, in her fourth year as director of the Los Angeles Film Festival (June 10-18), has taken the bull by the horns by treating the nine-day event, not to mention its staff, as a kind of Rainbow Coalition.

“I have been on and off the board of Film Independent, the 30-year-old organization that produces the festival, for 20 years,” Allain says. “Our mission is to support a community of artists who are diverse, innovative and have various points of view. And that mission statement has taken on new significance this year because I’ve really felt like we needed to embody it and walk the walk.”

With the help of newly crowned fest curator Elvis Mitchell and two fresh hires, programmers Roya Rastegar and Jennifer Cochis, the result is a slate chockfull of African-American, Latino, Asian and LGBT themes and talent. The most conspicuous presence is women directors, represented by 30 titles, and making up 40% of the films in competition.

But the film menu is just half the story, with the fest’s signature events — Master Classes, Coffee Talks, tributes and a Diversity Speaks series featuring the likes of Lily Tomlin, Pras Michel, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Rodrigo Garcia — providing another antidote to the Caucasian Male Club mentality that dominates Hollywood.

The indie showcase has morphed considerably since its maiden voyage as the Los Angeles Independent Festival in 1995. It also has migrated from Hollywood to Westwood to its current home at Downtown’s L.A. Live, which Allain likens to a “campus,” since patrons can easily go from a screening at Regal Cinemas to speaking events at the Grammy Museum. Attendance also has grown from the 19,000 patrons during the LAIF’s peak years to the 75,000-90,000 it routinely attracts since Film Independent took over in 2001.

The preponderance of world premieres (16 total) in this year’s narrative and documentary competitions, not an easy feat in the current 365-day fest universe, is testament to the organizers’ insistence on introducing new voices to eager cineastes who yearn for that sense of discovery.

“There’s probably over 1,200 films made in the United States every year; that’s what I’ve heard,” says Allain. “So it’s not that there aren’t good films out there, but it requires a lot of film watching; it requires a lot calls; it requires going to a lot of festivals.”

And what of the challenge of getting jaded Angelenos, many of them industryites, excited about attending a festival in their own back yard? One way of addressing that is showing each film just once, as opposed to two or three screenings at other fests, so that they’re elevated to “event” status. Another is a sense of inclusiveness that’s not always evident at far-flung locales like Telluride, or even locally, such as the mostly invite-only Colcoa French Film Fest.

“When you go to places like Cannes, you feel like the city’s been locked out of it,” says Mitchell. “It’s like this invading force and the city’s kind of left with its nose pressed against the glass. One of the big prerogatives of the L.A. Film Festival is to be as inclusive as possible. It’s open to everybody.”

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