Palm Springs fest's focus in covering Oscar spread

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It might not offer eager buyers the market of Cannes or young filmmakers the platform of Sundance, but the Palm Springs International Film Festival (which runs from today through Jan. 14) is a must-attend for at least two groups of filmgoers: those who influence the outcome of the Oscars and those who want to win their Oscar pools.

With screenings of roughly 55 of the 61 foreign Oscar submissions as well as the majority of the shortlisted feature-length and short documentaries, the festival guarantees audiences a familiarization with more obscure awards favorites.

"We have all the Oscar winners again and again," says festival director Darryl Macdonald, who will oversee the 19th annual event. "Last year we had all five of the eventual foreign-language nominees and of course the winner as well, and that's pretty much our track record. But we've also taken on another programming thrust, and that's to do the same thing with documentaries and documentary shorts, which is working great. Last year, between the honorees and the films in the festival, I think we represented at least 28 Oscar nominations. And that means that where people's faces used to go blank on Oscar night because they had no frame of references for so many of the movies, they now have the opportunity to see all the films in these categories that are in contention before Oscar night."

Because many of the audience members are Academy voters, distributors count the festival as an important spot on their itineraries during the fraught march down the campaign trail.

"It's a great place to be, whether you're beginning or in the middle of a campaign," says Picturehouse president Bob Berney, who is bringing "La Vie en Rose" star Marion Cotillard to this year's event. "It's a very important festival to position people. Plus, it's always a great audience. They really like indie films."

That audience is growing -- up 15%-25% in the last four years -- which has left the festival staff scrambling to ensure that films remain accessible. "We really hit critical mass a couple years ago, where people were in a funk about not getting into screenings," says Macdonald. "Lines were too long and movies were oversold. We had all the usual hallmarks of a young festival."

Macdonald and his staff have responded by spreading out show times, adding extra screens, and capping the number of all-access passes at around 1,000, although festivalgoers can buy books of individual tickets. The staff has also brought down the number of featured movies from last year by about 25, with around 220 films being shown.
 
"We wanted to tighten the festival," explains co-director of programming Carl Spence. "Because we expanded quite a bit, we were squishing films together. Now, we've kept the majority of best Oscar foreign films and shortlisted Oscar documentaries and short documentaries, but we've winnowed other categories a bit."

That said, Macdonald admits there's only so much planning they can do when it comes to making the festival run smoothly: "There are always the things you can't anticipate. Sometimes the documentary about anteaters from Lithuania becomes the hot ticket overnight, and you just couldn't have guessed."

As for this year's surprise favorite, Spence posits that Babette Mangolte's "Seven Easy Pieces," the AIDS documentary "Angels in the Dust" (Cinema Libre) and the Ricki Lake-produced "The Business of Being Born" (Red Envelope) as potential breakouts. Sure hot tickets are the screenings of the foreign Oscar contenders, such as the German-language "The Counterfeiters" (Sony Pictures Classics); Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (IFC First Take); Uruguay's "The Pope's Toilet"; Kazakhstan's "Mongol" (Picturehouse); Turkey's "Tavka"; and Denmark's "The Art of Crying."

The festival will also be highlighting films from Israel. "Israel is having an amazing year, which became apparent after the Berlin film festival," says Macdonald. "There's just a huge surge of young talent coming out of Israel this year. There are a couple of terrific film schools there, and their legacies are now beginning to show themselves."

High-profile English-language films will include the David Schwimmer-directed "Run, Fatboy, Run" (Picturehouse), which Spence calls "a complete crowd-pleaser," the British film "Sparkle," starring Stockard Channing and Bob Hoskins, and the Irish film "How About You," with Vanessa Redgrave. One must-attend screening is the outdoor showing and sing-along of New Line's "Hairspray," hosted by Netflix.

"I wanted to add a music motif this year," Macdonald says, "So we're also going to have a gala with Randy Newman singing live and a panel revolving around music's role in film. Part of what a festival should be about is enriching the filmgoing experience. It isn't and shouldn't be about simply sitting passively in your seat."

Spence agrees: "We're not a precious festival where we're only showing 30 films, so we have a lot of latitude to show things that audiences might not expect to see."

To ensure that there is something to make everyone stand up and cheer, regardless of taste, the festival will also cover its bases by looking to the future and honoring the past. Helen Hunt's directorial debut, "Then She Found Me," starring Hunt and Colin Firth, will premiere in advance of ThinkFilm's planned March release, while the festival's archival program will feature restored versions of films like John M. Stahl's 1945 thriller, "Leave Her to Heaven." There's also a planned retrospective of Romanian films and the program Cine Latino, which highlights a dozen or so Spanish-language films from South America, Mexico and Spain.

"I'm sort of a generalist and all over the map in terms of my focus," says Spence, "But our programmers are experienced in very different areas. There are those who focus on India, those whose specialty is archival films, those who cover Latin American cinema, and so on. Every year, we're seeing thousands of films all around the world, at festivals but also in various countries, and every programmer has a certain amount of leeway to book films they feel strongly about."

If the result is a wide-ranging slate that might seem a bit scattershot on paper, that's fine with the festival's executives. "It's like making a big stew for me," says Spence. "It's not about nice and neat and tidy; it's about a balanced mix with the right amount of ingredients. We're not looking to do a survey of cinema. We're looking at representing what's the best in cinema right now."   
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