A tale of two L.A. festivals

AFI, LAFF look to define themselves in a tough climate

Hollywood might be the heart of English-language moviemaking, but when it comes to film festivals, the city lacks a major-league franchise.

Not that Los Angeles has no film festivals. One of its two big ones, the Los Angeles Film Festival, successfully wraps its 2009 edition Sunday night. But the casual movie fan couldn't be blamed for puzzling over the identities of the two festivals, LAFF and AFI Fest. However, recent leadership changes at both fests and economic realities of the recession might more forcefully define those identities.

LAFF, which has settled into the cozy confines of Westwood Village and nearby venues for several editions, is produced by parent organization Film Independent (FIND). Rebecca Yeldham, producer of such films as "The Motorcycle Diaries" and "The Kite Runner," came on board as festival director only three months before the current edition began, following the resignation of Rich Raddon.

Although she did inherit a significant support network in FIND exec director Dawn Hudson and LAFF director of programming Rachel Rosen, the wrapped fest was a learning experience for her. Where things go from here is, as she put it, "to be determined."

At the moment, the festival is a bit of this and a bit of that. But like AFI Fest, you won't find many acquisition execs at its screenings. Neither festival tends to premiere must-see indie films. In its recent edition, LAFF showed several Sundance hits, and even in its narrative competition -- a place where one would expect new films -- "Turistas" played at Venice last year. The fest also included splashy premieres of such studio films as "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "Public Enemies" to bring crowds to Westwood.

Yeldham did open the festival for the first time with a world premiere of a film without a distributor. "Paper Man" did the trick: It attracted an audience filled with film scouts, studio execs and heads of independent companies.

Yeldham pronounced herself pleased with the results -- "It was a magical night for the audience and the filmmakers," she said -- but reviews of the film were tepid, and few of the execs at opening night were seen during the remainder of the festival.

Because major premieres of new works are unlikely only a few weeks after the Festival de Cannes, LAFF seeks to create "events." These range from a screening of a restored print of the 1971 cult film "Billy Jack" to "Poolside Chats" at the W Hotel and "Festival Conversations" at various venues where festivalgoers interact with filmmakers, writers and others.

Yeldham promises to increase such events. The way of the future, she said, can be seen in the new Artist in Residence component, where "The Kite Runner" novelist Khaled Hosseini and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne curated favorite films and participated in discussions related to those selections.

Yeldham insisted that despite being a production of FIND, "we want the Los Angeles Film Festival to be a celebration of cinema from wherever the films may come, not just American independent filmmaking."

Across town, AFI Fest plays the role of the city's long-established festival. For more than 23 years, the festival has been presented by the American Film Institute. Its declared ambition has been to survey cinema from around the globe. Coming near year's end, AFI Fest tends to be a roundup of the most significant films of the year. But, again, few new films.

Rose Kuo came aboard as artistic director last year following the departure of Christian Gaines. AFI Fest, which runs Oct. 30-Nov. 7, will undergo significant changes, some, Kuo said, dictated by "new economic realities."

The festival is moving its main venue from the ArcLight Cinemas to Grauman's Chinese. The festival will shrink from 11 days to nine and offer free tickets to all screenings.

"We are asking the public who can be part of our philanthropy to be a patron and contribute to the festival," Kuo said. "Those who can will get a pass, which gives priority entry at the door. All individual tickets to general screenings will be complimentary for all screenings, including a limited number of individual gala tickets."

If all major L.A.-based film curators -- which would include LAFF, AFI and the city's two cinematheques, the American Cinematheque and UCLA Film & Television Archive -- came together with studio support to create a single festival, it might rival such attention-grabbers as Austin's South by Southwest or even Sundance. But organizational egos and branding needs always have prevented the formation a superfestival in L.A.

So for the foreseeable future, Los Angeles will continue year-round film programming by its cinematheques plus two annual spikes caused by its rival festivals. All things considered, this is not a bad thing.