AFI Dallas blooms in its second year

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While Hollywood's been a bit under the weather since this past winter, film enthusiasts seeking that shot in the arm would do well to look to Dallas, where the second annual AFI Dallas International Film Festival, which runs tomorrow through April 6, is exceeding even its founders' expectations, filling theater seats and bolstering the city's reputation as a sophisticated, arts-and-culture-loving metropolis.

Texans, and Dallas residents in particular, seem to have a special place in their hearts for movies. In its inaugural year, AFI Dallas expected 10,000 attendees and ultimately drew 30,000.

"I think Dallas -- I mean this in the kindest way, not in a silly way -- is infatuated with stars and actors and moviemakers and directors," says fest founder and chairman Liener Temerlin, an advertising industry veteran and lifelong film lover who serves on the board of trustees for the American Film Institute. "This is not a hick town by any means, but I don't think anyone in Dallas has lost the awe factor."

While Texas already boasts a number of film festivals -- including the Austin Film Festival and South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, and in Dallas itself, the USA Film Festival and Jewish Film Festival, among others -- the AFI's involvement "means a lot," according to longtime Dallas resident and 2929 Entertainment CEO Todd Wagner, who is being honored with a Dallas Star Award at this year's fest. Wagner, a member of AFI's board of trustees, was instrumental in the birth of the event: He and fest CEO and artistic director Michael Cain first discussed the possibility of a major Dallas film festival while sitting center court at a Dallas Mavericks game.

"There's that little bit of magic that comes from that (AFI) name and the movies that are now playing in Dallas," Wagner says.

"I don't think any of us understood (what AFI Dallas would mean to the community)," Cain says. "I don't even think the city understood how much there was a need for this."

AFI Dallas, headquartered at the sprawling Victory Park (the fest's founding sponsor), has filled that void, underscoring not only Dallas' love of film, but of independent film.

"The people are really warm and open to coming to independent films," says Ashley Sabin, whose documentary "Kamp Katrina," which she co-directed with David Redmon, screened at last year's fest. The team is returning to AFI Dallas this year with "Intimidad."

"The audiences are really receptive and ask questions that they wouldn't normally ask at another festival," Sabin says.



Dallas seems to have "an appetite for movies beyond the major megaplexes," says director David Gordon Green, a Dallas native whose Warner Independent drama "Snow Angels," starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell, is screening at this year's fest. He notices

"a curiosity, at least among even the non-industry-savvy audiences, to get out there."

Getting audiences in the seats is not something AFI Dallas is finding problematic: Last year, according to Cain, 2,500 people came out for the festival's opening night, the majority of weekend screenings were sold out, and even on a Monday evening, it was tough to find an empty theater seat. The festival doubled its projected boxoffice take, and some locals even timed their vacations with the event to ensure they were in town for the screenings.

This year's AFI Dallas offers even more incentives for audiences and filmmakers to take part, and the turnout promises to be prodigious. Organizers received 1,600 submissions this year -- 400 more than last year (this year's program includes roughly 220 features and shorts). Eligible films will compete for two $25,000 Target Filmmaker Awards (for best narrative and documentary); there's also a $10,000 HDNet Award for the best film shot in HD, a new Environmental Visions competition section with a $10,000 Best Earth Friendly Award sponsored by Current Energy, and a Texas Competition, in which the winner will take home a $20,000 Texas Filmmaker Award sponsored by MPS Studios.

And for those who would still turn up their noses at Dallas, arbiter of style Neiman Marcus is increasing its involvement in the festival this year. It's featuring an exhibit at its downtown flagship store of more than 200 pieces from the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center, which houses an extensive collection of arts memorabilia. Highlights include storyboards and costumes from 1939's "Gone With the Wind," costumes from several Robert De Niro films, including pieces from 1990's "Goodfellas" and 1995's "Casino," and Gloria Swanson's annotated script for 1950's "Sunset Boulevard."

It makes sense that AFI Dallas would experience such phenomenal growth in only its second year. After all, Texans don't really do "small."

"Dallas has its own unique voice," Cain says. "And I think a lot of times, if you look at giants, if you look at a lot of the films that have come out of this city, out of this state, even (Peter) Bogdanovich, who did (1971's) 'The Last Picture Show' -- these are the sort of big ideas that can only happen when you have a lot of space, when the mind has the ability to sort of go where it wants to go. We're not confined by concrete. ... Nobody here is small by choice."      
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