Eight years ago, the LA Film Festival hosted June premieres in downtown Los Angeles for a pair of decidedly high-profile movies — “Twilight Saga: Eclipse” and “Despicable Me.”
The festival’s 24th edition, which launches Thursday night, will be very different. Film Independent moved the festival from downtown two years ago to the Arclight venues. Tentpoles are long gone. And it’s moved out of summer and into awards season.
It’s not easy for large-scale, general interest film festivals to make an impact in such a sprawling city, where many people are too busy making movies to watch movies. And some filmgoers focus their attention on the dozens of local niche festivals catering to every interest from horror to French films, with LGBT-focused Outfest claiming to draw the highest paid attendance of any Los Angeles festival.
The LA Film Festival is hoping to regain its place among top local events with more than 200 features, shorts, and music videos screening, representing more than 40 countries. It is also continuing to place a heavy emphasis on diversity in its competition film slate, with 42% of the films directed by women and 39% helmed by filmmakers of color. New venues have been added at the WGA Theatre and the Wallis Annenberg in Beverly Hills.
Andrew Slater’s music documentary “Echo in the Canyon” is the opening film at the Ford Theatre. Pointed topical comedy “The Oath,” starring Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, premieres on Sept. 25 at the ArcLight Hollywood. The closing film is the thriller “Nomis,” starring Henry Cavill, Ben Kingsley and Alexandra Daddario on Sept. 28 at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinerama Dome. Producer-director David Raymond said the screening positions his film well as it looks for distribution.
“We were almost done shooting ‘Nomis’ in Winnipeg, where it was extremely cold, and then we had to wait six months to finish because we got a heat spell,” he said. “The LA Film Festival is a great opportunity for us.”
Other notable titles include the West coast premiere of Eva Vives’ “All About Nina” on Sept. 23 at the Annenberg; the Los Angeles premiere of Rupert Everett’s “The Happy Prince” on Sept. 25 at the Annenberg; and the Los Angeles premiere of climbing documentary “Free Solo” on Sept. 27 at the Annenberg.
The LA Film Festival has been moving away from major studio fare in recent years since premiering Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” in 2014. Last year’s festival opened with “The Book of Henry” and closed with “Ingrid Goes West.”
“We put a lot of thought into changing from June to September,” notes Josh Welsh, the longtime president of Film Independent. “Summer was becoming increasingly difficult for us from a programming standpoint. Box office so far on this year’s event is doing great. And tentpoles aren’t really what the LA Film Festival is all about.”
L.A.’s other major festival, AFI Fest, which kicks off just six weeks later and offers free tickets to the public, has managed to secure a clutch of awards contenders for the past few years. Last year’s AFI Fest opened with Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” and closed with “Molly’s GAme,” which replaced “All the Money in the World.”
Festival director Jennifer Cochis, who replaced Stephanie Allain two years ago, says the festival needed to shake things up — hence, the move to September.
“If you keep things the same, you’re going to calcify,” she notes. “What we’re doing feels a little like jazz. We’ve got nine winners from other festivals such as Venice, SXSW and Berlin. For filmgoers, it’s much more important to have strong titles than to be the first place to show a film.”
Cochis noted that the new date should make it easier to filmmakers and film students to attend.
“Filmmakers are usually shooting in the summer,” she noted. “And we have so many film schools in Los Angeles — UCLA, USC, Loyola Marymount, Chapman — that we want those people to be a part of all this.”
Ticket prices are $16 for the public and $14 for Film Independent members. “We are for filmmakers first,” Cochis said.
Director Mark Jackson said the LA Film Festival is key to supporting emerging filmmakers. His drama “This Teacher,” about a French Muslim woman’s vacation to New York to visit a childhood best friend in Islamophobic America, premieres on Sept. 22. Jackson won Film Independent’s Someone to Watch award in 2012 for the drama “Without.”
“A film like ‘This Teacher’ is tiny,” notes Jackson. “I shot it in 14 days. I raised it from private equity and half it is a loan I took out so getting a slot in competition at the festival is huge. Moving to September positions Film Independent to be more of a player.”
Rob Schulbaum, whose “The Wrong Todd” is premiering in competition on Sept. 24, agreed.
“I’m thinking that the festival will have more visibility in September. Summer is a more difficult time and this festival was in my top three choices,” he said.
“The Wrong Todd” is inspired by the works of Charlie Kaufman and Harold Ramis, in which everything changes for Todd (played by Jesse Rosen) when his evil twin from a parallel universe arrives to steal his girlfriend.
Paid attendance should be in the 30,000 to 40,000 range, according to Cochis and Welsh. Like many festivals that have added television fare to their schedules, LAFF will feature the U.S. premiere of the first episode of Toni Collette’s Netflix show “Wanderlust,” on Sept. 22 at the Wallis Annenberg Center. Collette plays a therapist trying to find a way to keep her spark alive with her husband after a cycling accident causes them to reassess their relationship.
“The last we’d want to do is ban Netflix and selfie sticks,” Welsh noted, referring to two moves by the Cannes Film Festival.
The duo is also particularly enthused about the festival teaming with the LMU School of Film and Television for an for an immersive storytelling program, which has been curated by former AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga and will run Sept. 22-23 at the new LMU Playa Vista Campus.