Los Angeles Film Festival puts diversity on the screen
The Los Angeles Film Festival has long catered to all kinds of movie lovers: This year, the event will open with art-house staple Woody Allen’s latest romantic comedy and close with Channing Tatum writhing around in his skivvies in Steven Soderbergh’s stripper picture “Magic Mike.”
But the 18th annual festival, which begins with Allen’s “To Rome With Love” on Thursday night at downtown’s L.A. Live and runs through June 24, has embraced diversity in other ways. The Los Angeles Times-sponsored event will feature more than half a dozen movies dealing with African American themes, two of which — “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Middle of Nowhere” — will be spotlighted as gala screenings with the full red carpet treatment.
The selections were culled from more than 5,000 submissions and come from 30 countries, eight of which are in Latin America. The lineup includes 19 feature films directed by women, and the festival also will convene a special panel discussion among women in the animation business.
INTERACTIVE: Cheat Sheet - Los Angeles Film Festival
Stephanie Allain, who was named the director of the festival in late January, says she’s proud of this year’s emphasis on the work of women and people of color.
The L.A. Film Festival moved from Westwood to downtown three years ago, but in her new role Allain said she wanted to “maximize the footprint” of the new location. Most screenings are scheduled for Regal Cinemas L.A. Live, and nearly all festival-related events will take place in the Staples Center-adjacent locale. The music documentary “Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass” will play in a new venue there, the Grammy Museum.
“Sometimes it seems sexier to leave town to see a movie, but Los Angeles is the center of the entertainment world,” said Allain. “We’re offering something no other city can because Hollywood is in our backyard, and so many talent and crew actually come to our festival.”
Indeed, festival organizers have even lured the infamously press-averse Allen to the event. The filmmaker last walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 to promote his time-jumping romance “Midnight in Paris” but skipped the Academy Awards in February when the movie was nominated for best picture.
“Part of what the festival offers is that behind-the-scenes look, so when we go out to the studios, that’s what we ask for,” said David Ansen, the festival’s artistic director.
A number of the stars of Allen’s film, including Penélope Cruz and Jesse Eisenberg, will join the director at the premiere. Ansen believes that the allure of seeing celebrities will help attract casual moviegoers to the festival’s more obscure fare.
“With Penélope Cruz and Channing Tatum around, people come down to the festival who might not ordinarily see these movies and take a chance,” Ansen said.
Director Ava DuVernay is hopeful that will hold true for her film “Middle of Nowhere.” The drama about a woman living in South-Central L.A. whose husband is sent to prison for eight years is set for a limited theatrical release in October, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It plays at the festival on Wednesday.
“The festival made a very deliberate move to elevate our film with a gala presentation — and that’s important to have in a town that may eventually support this film,” DuVernay said. “It says this is not a sidebar film — this is a gala on par with all of the others, and that is significant.”
DuVernay already has had the opportunity to screen her movie for a festival audience, and other filmmakers are eager for that same chance. Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore, the team behind “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives,” want to find out how often graphic labor scenes play in a large theater.
“All along, we were committed to showing birth in its most honest state, and we weren’t really sure how that would work. So it will be interesting to see how well-received realistic birth footage is, and if people will flinch,” said Wigmore.
“Birth Story,” which follows one of the leaders of the midwifery movement, is seeking distribution at the event, though the filmmakers have raised nearly $30,000 via the independent financing website Kickstarter to help underwrite costs.
On the other end of the spectrum, the festival has scheduled a special presentation screening of the latest offering from Pixar, Walt Disney Studios’ big-budget 3-D animated film “Brave,” in the newly renamed, 3,400-seat Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The film will be the first movie to play the venue, which employs a state-of-the-art sound system, since Dolby signed a 20-year deal to take over the naming rights from Kodak for the theater that hosts the Oscars.
Overall, there will be 200 features, shorts and music videos shown. Filmmaker William Friedkin will serve as the guest director and will screen his new NC-17 thriller “Killer Joe” at LACMA’s Bing Theater on Friday.
Ten films will compete in the festival’s narrative competition, including Jared Moshé’s “Dead Man’s Burden,” a violent western about a family living in the post-Civil War era. Nine movies, including “Birth Story” and Till Schauder’s “The Iran Job,” about an American basketball player in Iran, are vying in the documentary competition.
A handful of movies that had splashy premieres at other festivals — Sundance favorite “Robot & Frank” and the documentary “The Queen of Versailles,” among them — will be screened as part of the festival’s summer showcase.
A few audience favorites will be presented at free public screenings: “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” will be shown Friday at the new open-air shopping and dining spot FIGat7th as a “bike-in,” and a dance-along version of “Dirty Dancing” will be held at Grand Performances at California Plaza on June 22.
-- Amy Kaufman
Photo: Quvenzhane Wallis as Hushpuppy and Dwight Henry as "Wink" on the set of the movie "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Credit: Jess Pinkham/Fox Searchlight