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Dawn Hudson was in a tough spot.
As executive director of Film Independent, she had spent eight years building the Los Angeles Film Festival into one of the organization’s signature events, only to have it sullied by the controversy surrounding longtime fest director Richard Raddon’s resignation. (Raddon resigned after it was revealed that he had donated $1,500 to support California’s Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage initiative.)
So now it was March, and a wide search through the festival and film communities had failed to turn up a viable candidate to succeed him. Then she realized the right person was sitting right across the conference table — fellow board member Rebecca Yeldham.
“She was so beautifully articulate and passionate about her vision for the festival and its future,” Hudson says. “I made it my personal mission to try to persuade her to take this job.”
It wasn’t an obvious choice. While Yeldham had had a four-year stint as a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival (1997-2001), the last several years she had been working the other side of the submissions process as the producer of such films as 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” and 2007’s “The Kite Runner.” Was this a job she really wanted?
For Yeldham, the deal was sealed by the experience she had at last year’s LAFF with her rock documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” It wasn’t just the screening — which boasted a performance by the reunited rock band Anvil — but the ongoing support of the festival staff and Film Independent, which sent e-mail blasts to its membership about the film’s post-fest progress.
“Ours was one of the scores of films that had that experience and support,” Yeldham says. “It helped me understand what’s possible when you become a part of the Film Independent family and are a direct recipient of the benefits of its support of filmmakers.”
While Raddon’s politics were controversial, his programming decisions were not, and Yeldham will largely be sticking to the formula he established for the 15th edition of LAFF, which runs from tonight through June 28.
“I don’t see it so much as different as an evolution,” says Yeldham of this year’s program. “We’re going to be continuing what (LAFF director of programming) Rachel (Rosen) and the team has done and developing programs that celebrate filmmakers of note, emerging talent and just films of great quality, whether they be teeny-weeny mircobudget independents or big summer movies.”
For the fourth year, LAFF will be based in Westwood Village, where it will unspool a program of about 70 features, 70 shorts and 50 music videos from 30 countries around the world. New features to the fest include programming highlights like Spotlight on Ambulante Film Festival: Filmmaking Without Borders, a new sidebar with selections from the Mexican documentary film festival founded by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and the panel discussion Post-Gay Hollywood?: Straight Talk About Gay Movies. The latter might seem like a symbolic show of support to those put off by the Raddon/Prop. 8 controversy, but festival officials insist it’s not the case.
“We would’ve done this panel regardless of what happened with Rich and Prop. 8 last year,” says a festival spokesperson. “We’ve always been an organization that promotes diversity.”
Last year, two of the more glamorous highlights were the opening-night world premiere of the Angelina Jolie-James McAvoy actioner “Wanted” and closing-night unveiling of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” This year, the big Hollywood studios will be represented by Universal’s “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, which will be the fest’s centerpiece premiere June 23, the American premiere of DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” on June 22, and the closing-night premiere of Disney’s animated feature “Ponyo.”
“It captures excellent media exposure, so the studios are now seeing it as a really good place to launch premiere movies and kick off their publicity campaigns,” says Danny Rosett, COO of Overture Films, which will screen its upcoming comedy “Paper Heart,” starring Michael Cera, at the fest. “It’s got a much higher profile than it did even five years ago.”
Some would argue that LAFF will never be considered a major film festival until it establishes itself as an acquisitions hub. But the festival has quietly been making its mark on the marketplace with the programs Kodak Speed Dating (setting up informal meetings between filmmakers and producers, distributors and agents) and Fast Track (connecting filmmakers and their projects with financiers and other industry professionals).
“There have been a lot of success stories,” says Film Independent head of talent development Josh Welsh. As an example, he cites filmmaker Scott Prendergast, who met his future agent (ICM’s Todd Hoffman) through Speed Dating, which led to him directing his first feature 2007’s “Kabluey.”
The year has not been without some small disappointments for LAFF, such as the transfer of the annual filmmakers retreat from Skywalker Ranch in Marin County to a local hotel, but overall the experience has been surprisingly positive for Yeldham.
“I had certain feelings about this film festival and what it could be, and what’s been so wonderful is to realize that we’re living and working in a community where those feelings are widespread,” Yeldham says. “There’s a tremendous sense of people rallying to support this film festival and wanting to celebrate it.”
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