Thursday night, when the AFI Fest launched with a starry “On the Basis of Sex” premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the event opened its 32nd annual edition to a much different festival landscape than it had in previous years. That’s because just one week earlier, Film Independent announced that it was pulling the plug on the LA Film Festival. The LAFF news came as a surprise since Film Independent had been operating the event for 18 years, shuffling artistic directors, locations, and programming strategies so often since 2001 — the year the org took control of the then-struggling Los Angeles Independent Film Festival — that locals had come to think of LAFF as a thing in flux, but never one in danger.
Alarmists might choose to read the development as the latest sign that Los Angeles film culture is in decline, if not outright freefall — a familiar criticism in an industry town where bona fide cinephiles find much of the attention focused on mainstream entertainment and the business side of filmmaking — but it’s not so simple. Indeed, Film Independent was careful to position the news as a good thing, pledging to channel the energy and resources previously needed to run LAFF into other activities, including the annual Spirit Awards and various year-round workshops and screening events. Considering the organization’s commitment to independent voices — and especially those of female and minority filmmakers at a time when audiences are thirsty for such stories — the decision actually makes a certain amount of sense.
Still, the larger question looms: What does it meant that Los Angeles, home to Hollywood and the American film industry itself, has lost what was once its most important festival? And what is it about the city that proves so inhospitable to such events?
In looking for the answer, I spent the last week speaking to critics, filmmakers, festival programmers and audiences, all of whom had different insights, from the unique geographical challenges the city poses to the overall-positive rise of new platforms (from Film Movement’s well-curated “DVD of the Month Club” to streaming services such as Amazon Prime) that deliver the equivalent of a world-class film festival directly into Angelenos’ homes 24/7.
I also went digging into the Variety archives to get a sense of how things have changed over the past quarter-century. You’d be surprised how often “the sky is falling” arguments have been heard before, and Los Angeles has seen other ambitious film festivals go under before. For example, when Filmex folded in 1983, its founders redirected their efforts into the revitalization of the American Cinematheque and a slate of year-round programming — a successful if still-challenging venture that sounds a lot like Film Independent’s stated goal. In addition to first-rate repertory programming, the Cinematheque now hosts a handful of micro-festivals in L.A. each year, ranging from regional showcases — Cinema Italian Style, Recent Spanish Cinema, German Currents — to the newish, genre-focused Beyond Fest.
1. With No Fewer Than 100 Film Festivals, L.A. Arguably Suffers From Too Much of a Good Thing.
Pretty much every weekend of the year, Angelenos can count on two or more specialized events to choose from, be it a hyper-targeted three-day happening like last month’s Animation Is Film Festival (just one of three toon-centric fests unspooling in L.A. this fall) or a behemoth on the order of the 11-day LGBT-movie bonanza that is Outfest, which, at 36 and counting, predates LAFF by more than a decade. At that rate, Angelenos are virtually drowning in options, which makes it unusually difficult for an event such as LAFF or AFI to differentiate itself from all the other film-related events going on year-round in Los Angeles.
Technically, there are two kinds of film festivals: markets and community festivals. Markets (such as Sundance, Berlin, Toronto and Cannes) deal in world premieres, serving up tons of new movies being shown for the first time, most of them seeking distribution — which is why these events attract members of the film industry (distributors shopping for available movies, agents looking for fresh talent, and a massive support network of publicists, sales agents, festival programmers and press). Most American film festivals fall into the “community” category, concerned less about world premieres than in bringing the best of new independent and world cinema from those other market festivals to the area they serve. Los Angeles has just one real market — American Film Market in the fall — and while industry pros do flock from all over the world to attend AFM, it’s essentially closed to the public. Meanwhile, the city arguably over-delivers on community-targeted showcases.
For those who organize and promote these festivals, there’s the added challenge of finding ways to get the word out in an environment where film critics, reporters and bloggers are spread thin trying to cover first-run releases (these days, between 30 and 40 new movies in L.A. theaters each week, too many for any outlet to review), much less specialty titles that may not yet have distribution. The week that LAFF rolls into town, how many Angelenos even know it’s happening?
Last weekend, I drove out to the Laemmle Noho 7 to watch Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” in North Hollywood and stumbled upon the Valley Film Festival — an 18-year-old event that I didn’t even know existed. Across town, a colleague was doing a panel for the Armenian-focused Arpa Film Festival, celebrating its 21st edition at the Cinematheque, while the far younger (second annual) Los Angeles Chinese Film Festival was happening at the Downtown Independent, loosely tied to something called the 4th China Onscreen Biennial, a month-long showcase that brought world-renown director Jia Zhangke to Los Angeles for a series of three-quarters-empty screenings.
2. Pick a Spot and Stick to it. LAFF Was Literally All Over the Map.
The fact that those four events took place in opposite corners of the city demonstrates the unique puzzle Los Angeles poses when it comes to where to host screenings in order to reach the widest possible audience. This is hardly a new problem for L.A. Reading an article from 1996, I found this comment from then-Trimark-exec Ray Price: “I used to fly from San Francisco to catch Filmex in L.A. Now that I live here, I don’t even drive to most of these festivals.” Price is complaining about two things here: a kind of sprawl that’s unique to Los Angeles, but also the fact the city doesn’t offer a proper market for new films, the way Sundance (and to a lesser degree, South by Southwest or Tribeca) does.
Whereas dense metropoles like New York and Toronto boast public transportation and high concentrations of people, earthquake-prone Los Angeles — a network of mostly one- and two-story neighborhoods that tessellate in every direction — spreads infinitely outward. It can take the length of a movie to traverse the city by car, which has been a source of ongoing frustration for distributors of art films for years, since Eastsiders don’t go West, and vice versa: Host a festival in Hollywood or downtown, and you won’t get the Venice or Santa Monica crowd; throw it in Culver City or Westwood, and it might as well be on the moon as far as Los Feliz and Pasadena residents are concerned.
In Los Angeles, there’s no single location that’s central enough — as LAFF found, relocating from West Hollywood to Westwood in 2006, then to the Regal L.A. Live Stadium 14 downtown in 2010, and finally to the ArcLight Culver City in 2016, expanding to include the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills this past year. Although LAFF faced challenges at each of these locations, these drastic geographic moves disrupted any sense of continuity, further complicated by its switch from early June to late September for its most recent (and final) edition. This year, LAFF started just four days after the Toronto Intl. Film Festival — North America’s largest showcase and market for new films — and though locals wouldn’t have been impacted by that in the slightest, the industry certainly felt it, making it tough to draw critics, buyers, agents and such who were still suffering from festival fatigue.
That said, as far as I could tell, attendance was up significantly from recent years at LAFF in its news fall slot. Compared to the previous year, when I attended several screenings in which there were fewer than two dozen people in the audience (for one, Kyra Sedgwick’s feature directing debut, “The Way Between,” the filmmaker hadn’t even bothered to attend her own world premiere), every single one of the half-dozen movies I saw at LAFF this year played to a packed house. Clearly they were doing something right in getting the word out — although I’m certain the date change posed other challenges.
3.Good Help Is Hard to Find, Especially in Los Angeles.
Now that LAFF has shuttered, I wonder whether AFI Fest could suffer the same fate, or will it grow to fill the vacuum? Survey the landscape of the most successful film festivals in the world, and you’ll see that nearly all are supported by organizations closely aligned with the event itself: In 1985, the still-young Sundance Institute took over the United States Film Festival, using it as an extension of their mission; founded in the wake of 9/11, Tribeca was already a successful festival when it spawned a similar talent-develop initiative; Toronto and Berlin and Cannes operate on the backs of enormous teams assembled for that very purpose.
By contrast, LAFF and AFI Fest are both owned by entities — Film Independent and the American Film Institute, respectively — whose primary focus is something else entirely, and when the festival rolls around each year, those events suck an enormous amount of energy away from other aspects of the business. In the case of Film Independent, by moving LAFF into late September, the org was basically cannibalizing resources from one of its most successful and important endeavors: the Spirit Awards (which helped to sustain LAFF for many years, since filmmakers understood that screening at the festival made them eligible for nominations).
Festivals also depend on entire platoons of volunteers and temporary workers, and as cities go, Los Angeles poses a unique challenge. Unlike somewhere like Toronto, whose volunteers return year after year, Los Angeles attracts people looking to become filmmakers. Logistically speaking, festivals function like giant pop-up events, having to re-staff the bulk of their workforce each year. With so much rotating help — available for a year or two, before finding better opportunities elsewhere — Los Angeles festivals are constantly losing experienced people and having to train others from scratch. And of course, it didn’t help that Film Independent went through several different artistic directors in recent years — which could also be a challenge for AFI Fest after replacing Jacqueline Lyanga with Michael Lumpkin just five months ago.
4. Instead of Setting Trends, LAFF Too Often Found Itself Chasing Fads.
Back in the early 2000s, director Rebecca Rosen helped grow LAFF, experimenting with different tactics to engage audiences, mixing premieres of truly independent productions with flashy Hollywood fare. On one hand, LAFF was the festival where I first saw a teenage Jennifer Lawrence on screen, so clearly a star in the making from that early role in Lori Petty’s “The Poker House.” It premiered countless films by local, women and minority directors, and enabled the L.A. premieres of films of key independent films, often serving as the first chance Angelenos had to see Sundance gems like Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (in 2005) and Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” (which opened the fest in 2010). But LAFF also relied on flashy studio fare to keep interest high, hosting premieres of Michael Bay’s first two “Transformers” movies — a clear sign of an identity crisis.
Every year, the criticism of LAFF was the same: Leadership couldn’t seem to decide what their mandate was, and without a clear mission statement, it was confusing to determine who it was trying to serve — audiences, individual filmmakers or Film Independent itself?
When David Ansen took over for Rosen in 2009, he made a determined effort to bring quality international cinema into the mix — though there was pushback from Film Independent, and Ansen and discerning fellow programmers Doug Jones and Maggie Mackay left in 2014, beginning a rocky chapter in which the festival’s relevance waned drastically, even as it tried to carve out a platform for women and minority directors rejected by other festivals. Rumor has it that even such a diversity-oriented, L.A.-centric film as Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” was turned down in 2015 because its director was a white man. If true, it shows a radical about-face from LAFF’s earlier philosophy, considering that Baker had served on the LAFF jury two years earlier, and won the festival’s top prize in 2008 with “Prince of Broadway.”
It’s risky to attribute LAFF’s failure to a dip in quality, since that’s not only subjective. From this critic’s perspective, the quality of programming was on the rebound under artistic director Jennifer Cochis, who took over in 2016, and it seems Film Independent pulled the plug before giving Cochis a chance to prove her vision. Ultimately, attendance is a far more important factor than quality, and it’s a known problem in Los Angeles that audiences don’t necessarily flock to masterpieces, but prefer glitzy premieres, like “Magic Mike” or last year’s “Annabelle: Creation.” So do sponsors, who can make or break a festival.
5. Follow the Money: For LAFF, Finding Sponsorship Was a Moving Target.
Unlike other countries, where film festivals are often treated as national initiatives and underwritten largely through government and arts funding, in America, such undertakings rely on corporate partners. When a festival can lock sponsors into multi-year commitments — as LAFF did with Target a decade ago — that gives them the comfort to experiment and cultivate an audience. L.A.’s long-running French film survey, City of Lights, City of Angels, has been savvy about working with sponsors (Tribeca and Toronto are the leaders in this department), creating smart activations and integrating brands such as Air Tahiti Nui and TV5Monde into the fabric of the event while also getting support from French and Hollywood guilds. COLCOA and other Euro-focused showcases also get a major boost from local advocacy nonprofit ELMA, which helps to create bespoke solutions for L.A.-area culture events.
That’s an equation that was far trickier for LAFF, especially in recent years. Fortunately, AFI Fest (technically, “AFI FEST presented by Audi”) seems to have figured out the branding balance, to the extent that it has been able to sustain its free-ticket policy (although attendees are often crammed into the front and side seats, while all the best rows are roped off for partners and VIPs). For those most troubled by the demise of LAFF, the development is a reminder not to take local festivals for granted.
You can start by attending AFI Fest, which is carrying on the model that Lyanga built by balancing indies and first-rate foreign cinema, boasting more than five dozen projects with female directors, as well as such world-cinema gems as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Venice-winning “Roma” (which begs to be seen on the big screen), plus “The Lobster” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” “Ida” Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” “The Weekend” from rising writer-director talent Stella Meghie and restorations of rare works by avant-garde femmes Chantal Akerman, Barbara Hammer and Nina Menkes.