Long known for its foreign film riches, the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival has lately adopted a “best of the fests” approach to take advantage of its prime spot on the calendar.

Its annual awards gala gets under way Jan. 2, barely 24 hours after the last Rose Parade float has lumbered down Colorado Boulevard to the west, and a mere three days before Academy Awards nomination voting begins this year. “Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan, “Call Me by Your Name” star Timothee Chalamet, “I, Tonya” mom Allison Janney and “Wonder Woman” herself, Gal Gadot, will be saluted at the gala, which draws 2,500 luminaries, stars and their handlers as well as film enthusiasts annually, and underwrites year-long programming for the organization.

Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch will be honored Jan. 3 at a brunch before opening night Jan. 4. The fest concludes Jan. 15, shortly after the nomination voting concludes.

Artistic director Michael Lerman, still finalizing the fest lineup one month out, expects 170 to 190 films to screen at PSIFF. Around 40 of those will be foreign-language films, including those short-listed by Oscar.

“I think it’s a great time to run a festival,” says Lerman, who is also a programmer at the even larger Toronto film fest and is in his second year at PSIFF. Starting virtually the first of the year, “you can say, this is the best of the past year.”

This approach has resonance for those who haven’t had a chance to catch up with films earlier and those who haven’t seen any films the prior year, he notes. “You can create a conversation about these films.”

The festival draws more than 135,000 attendees annually. But the kickoff gala undeniably generates the most attention in the industry and beyond. Its position on the awards season calendar is key — and the track record of honorees doesn’t hurt either.

“Almost all our honorees get nominated for an Academy Award,” says PSIFF board chairman Harold Matzner, who has been overseeing the gala for 17 years. “Many people feel coming to Palm Springs is a good start to an Academy Awards nomination, and quite a lucky start.”

Indeed, last year, the vast majority of last year’s honorees were nominated. Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) and “La La Land’s” Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz went on to receive Oscars while Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”), Ruth Negga (“Loving”), Nicole Kidman (“Lion”), Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) and Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”) were nominated for Academy Awards.

In addition to Ronan, Chalamet, Janney and Gadot, Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Holly Hunter (“The Big Sick”), Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”), Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”) and “The Shape of Water” will be honored at this year’s festival. “Entertainment Tonight” host Mary Hart will once again host the event.

The gala itself is a lavish affair at the city’s convention center: It boasts 120 feet of red carpet and heavy security. Matzner says 1,000 people work the event, which grosses $2.5 million.

“It supports the creative goals of Mr. Lerman,” says Matzner, “who is at the end of a two-year contract and will be given a new one.”

Beyond the gala and showcase screenings, the festival will cast a spotlight on Argentina films, and continue its Books to Screen program, Talking Pictures Q&As and New Voices, New Visions program designed to showcase films by first- or second-time filmmakers.

The Books to Screen program will spotlight “Last Flag Flying,” “The Lost City of Z,” with director James Gray, and “Call Me by Your Name” this year. “My Days of Mercy,” with Ellen Page and Kate Mara, will premiere Jan. 11 with a gala screening. The movie “Nostalgia,” starring Jon Hamm and Catherine Keener, will also screen at the fest.

Lerman says he decided to focus on movies from Argentina “because there were too many good movies to ignore this year,” citing Diego Lerman’s “A Sort of Family” and Constanza Novick’s “The Future Ahead” as two examples.

Variety’s Directors to Watch honored at this year’s fest are: Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah (“Gangsta”), Augustine Frizzell (“Never Goin’ Back”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Joseph Kahn (“Bodied”), Xavier Legrand (“Custody”), Carlos Lopez Estrada (“Blindspotting”), Anthony Maras (“The Palace”), Samuel Maoz (“Foxtrot”), Claire McCarthy (“Ophelia”) and Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”).

The festival maintains its strong focus on foreign films. Ninety were submitted this year, and Lerman is winnowing that down to around 40.

“We try to look at all of them,” he says. “I’d love to play all of them. But there’s only space for so many movies.”

The growth of the fest and the gala has been especially gratifying for Matzner, who began shepherding the event in 2000.

“I remember when it was in the museum here and we had 200 people,” he recalls. “It grew rather quickly after 9/11 and it has continued to grow.”
Now, he says, “we’ve kind of maxed out” at the convention center with around 2,500 attends the last few years. “We need a bigger building.”