MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Location, Location, Location…


There’s an odd disconnect when you contrast the domination of event movies playing at the neighborhood multiplex during the summer months and the proliferation of film festivals that cater to idiosyncratic tastes this time of year. One isn’t necessarily the antidote to the other. Nonetheless, the two solitudes co-exist in a state of anxious symbiosis.

The Los Angeles landscape stretches out like one long strip mall, so it’s psychologically appropriate that the film terrain should be a succession of fest stops that include The Los Angeles Film Festival, Outfest, myriad national cinema weeks and smaller events keen to promote American and international orphans de cinema. The democratization of movie making that’s occurred as a result of affordable digital tools is both a blessing and a curse and unquestionably a boon for anyone that thinks it would be fun to put on a film festival.

There is nonetheless a Darwinian aspect to these film showcases. Fewer than a handful can be called venerable and several others rank among one’s business/social calendar considerations. That leaves hundreds of others either vying to ascend to the pantheon such as Tribeca or clawing to maintain more than local significance such as San Francisco.

Film festivals are rarely born of altruistic intents or, charitably, nobility is a minority component that has a diminishing role as a financially viable construct evolves in this arena where survival of the fittest is a cruel reality. Show and business are generally ill matched in this niche industry as film nerds aren’t noted for business acumen and showmen (and women) are adjectively designated with such bon mots as “crass” or “vile.”

The Cannes Film Festival was born out of a need to pump up tourism during that town’s off-season while Venice was an effort to promote the art and commerce of Italy’s film industry. The mercenary origins of these and other movie smorgasbords are by no means exclusive to the seventh art. There are countless musical, theatrical and sporting events that have popped up at seemingly odd venues over the years that one can trace back to a political, financial or promotional efficacy.

Connecting the dots could lead one to conclude that there’s both organic and fertile ground for a film showcase in Los Angeles. After all Hollywood is the quintessence of movies, the dream factory, the filmmaking Mecca.

The verity is that the major studios were dead set against any type of Los Angeles film festival. They already had the best type of exposure – access to worldwide screens – for the movies they produced and saw no reason to present their product alongside the work of filmmakers from other nations.

The other stumbling block for the City of Angels is that it’s not a getaway destination for the American film industry. One doesn’t escape to Hollywood, Westward or Santa Monica to ferret out new movies. One doesn’t necessarily find them in Sundance, Aspen, Dubai or Bangkok but they are out-of-town destinations that might afford a bit of fun and relief from one’s daily grind.

Last month, the organizers of the AFI Film Fest LA held an informal reception for people involved with the first Los Angeles film festival that took place in 1971 under the FilmEx banner. The AFI took over stewardship of the event about 20 years ago.

One participant recalled that the architect of the festival, Gary Essert, had few allies in the community and cited Gregory Peck and George Cukor as the unsung heroes that employed muscle and suasion to affect a modicum of cooperation from the corporate suits. The opening night presentation was The Last Picture Show.

A lot has changed in Los Angeles in the past third of a century. Both the Los Angeles Film Festival (an outgrowth of the L.A. Independent Film Festival now under the auspices of Film Independent) that opens next week and the AFI Fest that has a November berth would like to become major events on the level of Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. There are also dozens of smaller, niche festivals annually and year round programming at such venues as the American Cinematheque (another Essert creation), the L.A. County Museum and UCLA.

The bottom line consideration for all festivals is that they remain financially sound. In most of the world, they’re viewed as cultural events and therefore eligible for often sizeable government grants. America is the exception. Government support of the arts is largely tokenism and the healthiest festivals are the ones that can secure a deep-pocketed patron. Los Angeles two high profile film outings have The Los Angeles Times and Audi as their name sponsors with a long list of corporate logos attached to individual programs and activities.

It’s rare for a major corporate underwriter to lend its name or largesse for more than five years and there are more than a few sagas of organizations pulling out at an inopportune moment.

Still, the composition of a festival’s sponsorship page tends to have little bearing on programming or purpose.

The somewhat romanticized view of these movie marathons is the screening of quality films that might not otherwise been seen in the geographic location of the presentation. I have vague memories of festival directors attempting to mouth such homilies with a straight face. Certainly a component of any reputable film showcase is the inclusion of distinctive movies that lack theatrical distribution. Any reasonably motivated programmer believes he can affect an enthusiastic response from an audience that might change the situation for the betterment of a movie.

There are other scenarios that color the composition of a festival catalogue that are not as lofty, ambitious or innovative. A film might be selected sight unseen to secure an appearance by a star or filmmaker and some films are included to get the selections you really want in your program. And, of course, other films can be desperation choices made at the last minute when someone reneges on a promised picture. Even Cannes is not above this form of cinematic politics.

Film festivals are a kind of delicate balancing act. On the most basic of levels the schedule is a mixture of the films the organizers really want and the films they can get and the aim is to tip the scales toward the former.

The significant festivals also tend to have a press junket aspect. Distributors and producers are not blind to the opportunity of garnering ink for a new movie and those events that can guarantee sizeable international media attendance have an edge. There aren’t a lot of venues that can program a large number of world premieres of high profile movies to draw on the critics and media outlets filmmakers want to reach.

The ground has shifted so radically – especially in the past two decades – that the majority of festivals are in a quandary about their mission statement. The director of a major festival told me recently that he’s so busy adapting to audience tastes, corporate support and film politics that he no longer has a clear sense of purpose. He’s hoping to address that part of the job once he’s confident his event will survive.

The two Los Angeles festivals and Tribeca would, for good and ill, like to be festivals that have strong audience support and wield sufficient power to get prized pictures and command industry interest. It will be a hard slog with the mainstream kicking and screaming to prevent it from happening. As far as the majors are concerned, a significant amount of money is already being spent in Cannes, Toronto and – when warranted – a handful of other prestige festivals. The idea of another important movie tour stop is viewed as more money spent and not an exciting new promotional springboard.

However, should it occur, whether by orchestration or serendipity, expect the cue to wind up circling the block.
June 19, 2006

– by Leonard Klady 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon