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With its egalitarian approach and commitment to showcasing world cinema, the Palm Springs International Film Festival attracts an eclectic crowd of industry A-listers and local cinephiles.

Every major film fest has certain attributes the industry loves to hate, whether it's the overcrowding at the Sundance Film Festival or the attitude at the Festival de Cannes. But it's difficult to find something to gripe about when it comes to the Palm Springs International Film Festival, now celebrating its 18th year. The weather is warm. The access to screenings -- where one's seatmate is more likely to be a civilian fan than an industry fanatic -- is easy. And the program includes scores of foreign-language Oscar contenders, documentaries and glittery premieres that attract A-list talent.

As executive director Darryl Macdonald says, "When you say to people, 'How'd you like to come to the California desert in the middle of January and see great films?' you're not making it hard on them."

Apparently not. The festival -- which opens today with the U.S. premiere of "Outsourced," a romantic comedy that follows an American novelty-products salesman who heads to India to train his replacement, and runs through Jan. 14 -- has audiences flocking in record numbers to see more than 250 films from 73 countries, with ticket sales far exceeding last year's 112,000 total admissions.
Writer-director John Boorman's latest film, "The Tiger's Tail," staring Brendan Gleeson, Kim Cattrall and Sinead Cusack, will close the event.

Known for its emphasis on foreign fare, the Palm Springs fest this year will spotlight 17 films from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as part of a special program called "Skol! Scandinavia!" "We noticed the trend of strong Scandinavian films emerging at (the Toronto International Film Festival) last year," says Macdonald, who, along with seven other programrs, scouts every major festival for films to screen at Palm Springs. "Other countries are good about financing and supporting (their) filmmakers, but the filmmakers tend to be established. Scandinavian countries are great about supporting first-time filmmakers and giving them a chance."

Macdonald, who compares the growing global recognition of these films to that of Asian exports in the early 1990s, is especially pleased to be presenting the works of so many female Scandinavian directors.

Additionally, audiences will have the opportunity to see 38 films from Latin America, Portugal and Spain in the Cine Latino program, as well as a comprehensive foreign-language slate that includes 55 of the 61 official Academy Awards submissions. Ten documentaries shortlisted for the Oscar also will be screened.

The opportunity to see so many Oscar hopefuls is a luxury for audience members, but it also is a boon for filmmakers who hope to build buzz during awards-season voting. "Any attention we can grab at that moment is very important," says Elif Dagdeviren Guven, executive producer of the official Turkish entry "Ice Cream, I Scream." "The festival is a wonderful opportunity because (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) members can come and see the film during the formal screening."

The hope of gaining an Oscar vote or two along with a round of applause isn't limited to foreign filmmakers either. Says David Lynch, whose 518 Media-distributed film "Inland Empire" will receive a special presentation at the fest, "A lot of Academy members live in Palm Springs, so it's a chance for voters to see the movie, especially Laura (Dern's) performance."

To promote his awards-season hopefuls, ThinkFilm theatrical head Mark Urman will attend the festival with France's official Oscar submission "Avenue Montaigne," and he hopes to organize a screening of "Half Nelson" followed by a Q&A session with star Ryan Gosling. "The festival comes at the finish line of Oscar campaigning, and the Academy members are there," Urman offers. "In addition, it's a pleasure to attend because the programrs curate very high-caliber films with recent, current and forthcoming films in a very interesting way."

Apart from the potential Oscar contenders at the fest, the jury-judged New Voices/New Visions section focuses on first- and second-time filmmakers, but the festival's programrs say they're not necessarily looking for industry executives to attend Palm Springs in order to scout talent or make acquisitions.

"If people end up doing business here, that's fine," Macdonald says. "But everyone in the industry knows that the marketplace is already oversaturated. It's expensive to go to a market festival -- you need to bring a staff, throw a party, have a screening -- and there are already too many of them. Plus, often business doesn't get done at those marketplaces anyway. The movie is seen, the negotiations begin, but the deal isn't done until after the festival's over.

"Filmmakers say they really like being able to see their films alongside an audience," Macdonald adds. "At market screenings, you're in an audience of people trained to sit on their hands and not react, or you're experiencing such intense competition that it becomes a frenzy."

The prospect of that honest audience reaction is exciting for producer Christof Neracher, who will attend with his Swiss Oscar entry "Vitus," winner of the audience feature prize at the 2006 AFI Film Festival and a Sony Pictures Classics release. "I've never been to Palm Springs, but from what I've heard, it's wonderful because the audiences really embrace foreign films," Neracher says. "Seeing how people from different cultures react to a film is such a great experience, and I'm really hoping they enjoy our film. At the end of the day, that's really at the heart of what we do and why we do it."

To ensure that those without passes are able to see the films, the festival keeps a close eye on ticket availability and does its best to make as many tickets available to the public as possible. "You can always get in to see a movie," programming director Carl Spence says. "You can buy the tickets online or at several other venues. And even if a movie is sold out, we'll release tickets at the boxoffice at the last minute, once we know how many people with passes are going to be attending. It's very civilized."

That's not to say the event lacks sparkle. Looking to amp up the star power, the festival holds an annual black-tie awards gala, which will be hosted by Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart and is set to take place Saturday. "The lineup of talent has always been strong for us, but this year, it's really extraordinary," Macdonald says.

Indeed. This year's honorees include veteran filmmaker Sydney Pollack; the cast of Paramount Vantage's "Babel" and the film's director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; New Line's "Little Children" star Kate Winslet and director Todd Field; Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" breakout actor Adam Beach; and the cast of Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," along with that film's directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, as well as screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Apart from the awards, the festival will play host to galas for a number of films, including Lars von Trier's "The Boss of It All" (IFC Films) and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" (Sony Pictures Classics), as well as fetes for the Italian film "The Golden Door" (Miramax), Q. Allan Brocka's "Boy Culture" (TLA Releasing) and "Avenue Montaigne," directed by Daniele Thompson.

"For this particular film, which hasn't been released in the U.S., I need to play catch-up with Academy members," Urman says of "Avenue." "This film is particularly well-suited to the gala because it's a uniquely crowd-pleasing film. While many of the other foreign entries are good, they may be heavy and serious. This is a chance to say, 'Let's celebrate that a movie doesn't have to be punishing to be great.'"

Private receptions will be held for "Inland Empire" and Miramax's "Venus," and the Belgians, the Canadians, the French, the Italians, the Swedes, House and Garden magazine and the Screen Actors Guild will host parties of their own.

But for those who prefer moviewatching to partygoing, the programrs will offer a new series of late-night screenings of action, martial arts, comedy and horror films.

Macdonald is quick to point out that the emphasis should squarely remain on the films that screen at the event, not the spectacle that surrounds them."If one filmmaker or film emerges being talked about, then I'd pat myself on the back," he says, adding modestly, "but I think we're doing pretty well."
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