Photograph by Ethan Pines
The world’s great film festivals don’t lack for personality. Cannes does an excellent job every spring in attracting the paparazzi and the requisite beachside cleavage while also occasionally righting some of Oscar’s most egregious wrongs. Case in point: In 1976, Taxi Driver didn’t win a gold statuette (Rocky nabbed Best Picture) but claimed the Palm D’Or. Audiences at the Toronto Film Festival have proved adept at foretelling unlikely box office champs, from Michael Moore’s debut, Roger & Me, to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. In the January freeze of Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival has made the American independent film worthy of Hollywood bidding wars. There are others that have distinguished themselves—from Sarasota to São Paulo, from Austin to Venice, the latter being the eldest of the bunch, giving out Mussolini Cups in its first eight years (it began in 1934) before switching to the Golden Lion.
The Los Angeles Film Festival, by contrast, hasn’t captivated the global media or even the local news. The event, which this year takes place downtown from June 17 to 27, has grown exponentially since its inception in 1995; last year more than 83,000 attended LAFF premieres, tributes, and awards ceremonies. Still, its public profile remains dreadfully low. Unlike Toronto or Sundance, where executives from Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight can be seen charging in after a screening waving wads of cash to acquire distribution rights, the Los Angeles Film Festival, says its new director, Rebecca Yeldham, is “not really a market as much as it is a think tank and a community.”
There is something refreshing about the fact that so little money changes hands at the LAFF. In a real way the program does what Sundance set out to do years ago: nurture young filmmakers rather than co-opt them, and encourage conversation more than auction off potentially hot properties. But the absence of “festival frenzy,” as the heightened competition at many fests is called, hasn’t been because LAFF organizers aren’t trying. Over the years Film Independent, which sponsors the festival, has made tricky pacts with the studios and corporate sponsors. The organization’s proximity to Hollywood has had a counterintuitive effect on its mission to introduce films with “original subject matter” and “uniqueness of vision” using “the economy of means.” To be sure, it has shepherded the careers of a few notable indie filmmakers. But in its attempt to support those artist-driven projects, Film Independent has also slipped into bed with the conglomerates that threaten to overshadow them.
Leading the organization for the past 18 years is Dawn Hudson, a chatty Arkansas native and Harvard-educated actress who came to the group to do part-time work between auditions and hadn’t the slightest idea of how to run a nonprofit. Not that her predecessors had any inkling themselves—Film Independent, which when Hudson came on board was still part of a New York-based collective called the Independent Feature Project, was all but bankrupt and hemorrhaging members when she arrived.
Hudson has created filmmaker labs and mentorship programs. She transformed the project’s annual Independent Spirit Awards from a scrappy restaurant get-together into a celebrity-studded televised event in 1995. She took over the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2000, splitting from the Independent Feature Project in 2006. Meanwhile membership has surged from 900 in 1992 to more than 4,000 today.
Last year, in perhaps her most important strategic decision, Hudson brought in Yeldham as festival director. An Aussie producer with a string of critical darlings to her credit (including The Kite Runner, Motorcycle Diaries, and last year’s award-winning documentary Anvil!), Yeldham knows how to straddle both the indie and commercial realms. Her longtime romantic partner is writer-director Curtis Hanson, and for five years she was the senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival. She and Hudson are impassioned when they discuss film and their desire to spark a serious dialogue about the art form. If they raise the festival’s profile and open up more mainstream opportunities for the winners, all the better.
The centrality of the LAFF’s home city, of course, has been an obstacle to the kind of energy you get when throngs of Industry executives decamp to some isolated snowy burg or foreign beach town. “While there’s great enthusiasm for film here, there’s sort of an oversaturation,” Yeldham says. So she envisions drawing added vitality to the festival from other L.A. creative engines not nearly as exposed. Gradually, she says, the festival will grow into more of a “cross-pollination of the arts,” a demonstration of the “outpouring of creative expressions,” with lots of street life and the voices of musicians, architects, novelists, and other artists. Film, it seems, will always be a key element of the festival, but far from its sole focus.
Sponsors as disparate as LG Electronic and ZonePerfect Nutrition Bars keep the Spirit Awards and the Film Festival afloat, while HBO, Target, and Sony Pictures have helped supplement Film Independent’s patchwork of grants that seek to educate and to launch 80 or so indie filmmakers each year. They also help pay for Film Independent’s utilitarian, high-rise headquarters on Pico Boulevard, which offers its casting rooms, editing suites, and a library equipped with a universe of filmmaking software free to its members, who pay annual dues of $95. But Film Independent can’t have it both ways. Inevitably, some of its DIY credibility has gotten muddied in the process.
“They do try to do a lot of good things,” says Dave Poland, an L.A.-based film blogger who has consulted for film festivals in Bermuda and Miami. “But the two big events that drive their machine are skewed in this weird not-quite-independent, not-quite-studio, not-quite-honest-about-the-real-purpose way.”
L.A. did once have a film festival that had no such contradictions. In retrospect it seems no accident that the Los Angeles International Film Exposition, or Filmex, originated in 1971—one year into the most daring and independent-minded decade of Hollywood filmmaking we’re likely to see—and that it folded in 1985, when Back to the Future pulled in nearly $200 million. That film was box office evidence that boilerplate heroism had returned and that what writer Peter Biskind would dub the “Raging Bulls, Easy Riders” era of antiheroism, in his book of the same name, was emphatically over.
During its short but vibrant existence, Filmex not only screened The Last Picture Show and Annie Hall but lured Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel to premieres of their later films and ran 24-hour Billy Wilder marathons and 50 straight hours of musicals. Not that Filmex was all high-brow: It evinced a weakness for Barbra Streisand-related kitsch, staging world premieres of Funny Lady and the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born. But the festival gave an unparalleled sense of the best of what lay behind and hopefully ahead for Hollywood. Out of Filmex’s ashes rose the American Cinematheque, the nonprofit revival house that hosts special screenings in the Egyptian and Aero theaters.
Hudson and her team clearly hope to bring more artistic gravitas to the Los Angeles Film Festival this year, largely by staging it in downtown L.A., a cultural center for the young and creative that, Yeldham says, is “tied very much to the DNA of Film Independent.” The program is culled from more than 4,600 unsolicited entries to give viewers a populist mix of studio fare, navel-gazing indies, and cinema from around the world. The goal is to foster an urban destination event with a rhythm that appeals to cineasts, Industry types, and even occasional filmgoers. Indeed, moving the festival hub to the splashy L.A. Live complex, with its 7,000-seat Nokia Theatre, certainly brings some much-needed verve. And screening films at REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall and at the historic Orpheum and Million Dollar movie palaces on Broadway, even outdoors at the California Plaza, make hoofing around Westwood (the festival’s former home) seem flat-out dull. “What we liked about downtown was this incredibly vibrant, forward-thinking, diverse arts community,” says Yeldham. The move, she says, “represented an expanded footprint for the festival.”
Film Independent’s board and staff have talked about relinquishing the “glamour and casualness,” as Hudson once put it, of a summer festival and moving it to the fall to latch onto Oscar buzz. They’ve also considered new ways of exhibiting films—everything from expanding the Film Independent Web site to partnering with national theater chains. But like so many others in entertainment today, Film Independent hasn’t yet come up with a formula that can preserve artistic integrity and make some cash in the process. “We haven’t pinned it down,” says award-winning director and board president Bill Condon.
“There’s a recalibrating for everyone,” says Hudson as she gazes at the panoramic view of West L.A. from her office. “We want to help filmmakers reach their audience, but the model that will serve filmmakers hasn’t really shown itself. You can put your film out in a variety of ways, and it won’t matter. It won’t help the artist. It might get feature distribution deals. It might get you a slot on a long list of [video-on-demand] options, but nobody ever sees the film. And you certainly never see any money for it. What is the option that’s going to work?”
In terms of possibilities and tidy Industry synergies, Hudson need look no further than her organization’s Independent Spirit Awards, which has turned into a sort of televised rehearsal dinner for the Oscars, packed with movie stars, studio muscle, and corporate funding. Even the show’s presenters were stuck trying to distinguish the event from the Oscars, typically held the following night. “The Academy Awards honors the biggest directors and superstar actors,” Sarah Silverman told the audience in 2006, “while this show is the champion of struggling artists like Ang Lee and George Clooney.” When Ben Stiller spoke at this year’s awards, he joked that “it says volumes about the organizers of this event that even though I’ve been in over 350 big-budget studio movies during the last five years, the Spirit Awards were bold enough to say ‘You, Ben Stiller, epitomize our core values.’?”
The Independent Spirit Awards’ outsider bona fides were assured as long as John Waters was host. The writer-director with the pencil-thin mustache, who put obese men in drag, pioneered the scratch-and-sniff “Odorama,” and made unflinching cult classics like Pink Flamingos and Polyester, was the antithesis of the Billy Crystal insider glad-hander. Waters’s hosting of the show was as unexpectedly appealing as his movies. Sponsorship dollars poured in, and the dinner party on the beach became a hotter ticket than the Oscars.
Alas, Waters did his farewell telecast six years ago. Since then movie stars (Samuel L. Jackson) and comic actors (Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Eddie Izzard) have taken his place. But the acerbic filmmaker has no hard feelings. He managed to get a few reliable paydays out of the gig, and as a cash-strapped auteur, he’s only too grateful for that opportunity. “Independent filmmakers will take the money wherever they can get it,” Waters says. “Believe me. From drug dealers. From studios. From the Mafia. We’ll take it anywhere we can get it.”