After five years at Film Independent's Los Angeles Film Festival, Artistic Director David Ansen, ex-critic of Newsweek, is leaving the festival to return to writing. Also exiting is ace programmer Doug Jones, who takes 12 years of institutional memory with him. Very much in charge is LAFF's high-powered director, studio-trained producer Stephanie Allain ("Boyz 'n the Hood," "Hustle & Flow"), who is pulling her friend Elvis Mitchell into a more prominent role as year-round "curator."
Another ex-critic, Mitchell has become an interviewer of celebrities (on KCRW FM and at LACMA's Film Independent series) who is himself a celebrity. He's given credit for bringing to LACMA Jason Reitman's hugely popular live reads. Does Mitchell do the labor-intensive slog work of tracking, chasing and culling through films? No, but this new job will give him an incentive to sample more wares at various film festivals. Will he manage the LAFF programmers? Unlikely. Allain will be more hands-on in that area. It remains to be seen if the last senior programmer standing, Maggie Mackay, who also produces the Indie Spirits, will stay on board. Waiting in the wings is Allain's protege Roya Rastegar, a film professor at Bryn Mawr College who helped Allain and Mitchell to program new fest section LA Muse.
Both Allain and ex-Lincoln Center Film Society executive director Rose Kuo sought to be more hands-on in shaping the overall direction of their respective festivals. In Kuo's case, she ended up moving on, now CEO of the well-financed new Qingdao International Film Festival, leaving the New York Film Festival director she hired, Kent Jones, very much in charge of that fest as lower-profile executive director Lesli Klainberg manages the FSLC and its fundraising and exhibition efforts.
LA Muse is where to look for a sense of what the LAFF will become: local, eclectic, multi-cultural, interactive: one program involved Funny or Die videos. Sure, distributors will still turn to the fest for local summer premieres. But will LAFF continue to be the well-programmed survey of quality international cinema that it is today? It will be different. Ansen brought in such world-class filmmakers as Pedro Almodóvar, Nicholas Winding Refn, Richard Linklater, Costa-Gavras, Woody Allen, Lisa Cholodenko and Bong Joon-Ho, whose "Snowpiercer" made a rousing opening for the fest. Ansen and Jones are leaving because they were not in sync with Allain, who is looking to mount a more populist, less international festival. "We had different visions of what the festival should become," Ansen told me on the phone. "It became clear that for the sake of all concerned I should step aside."
"I’m grateful to David for bringing his critical eye and international taste,” stated Allain in the festival press release. “Unifying the Festival and our year-round programming under Elvis’ remarkable vision will facilitate Film Independent’s mission to support a community of diverse, innovative and unique-minded artists. I can’t wait to deepen our collaboration and am excited about the future of the Festival.”
Film Independent president Josh Welsh, who took over Dawn Hudson's role running Film Independent--including the festival, various initiatives in support of indie filmmakers, and the Indie Spirit Awards-- is happy to leave Allain in charge of the festival, because she has improved the bottom line. LAFF has been chasing the younger demo by moving the fest downtown, and under her management, Allain slashed costs to make the festival more profitable. (The numbers weren't all they could have been for 2014, not due to programming, but to the festival shrinking by two days because Regal Cinemas only allowed for one prime-time weekend.)
Truth is, only a few top-ranked film festivals a year are must-attend destinations packed with high-end world premieres and star attendees. Sundance and Cannes are two, and the current tussle instigated by giant Toronto against well-curated smaller Telluride reveals the pressures these festivals feel to land first-ever premieres. While Toronto is pushing back against Telluride's under-the-radar success at pulling awards contenders-- for TIFF audiences as well as bragging rights-- what's lost is what's best for the films. Riding the wave from a Telluride success to Toronto with its broader spectrum of media, buyers and film lovers is effective. Toronto is giving awards distributors like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, especially, a tough choice and they aren't happy about it.
Increasingly, fests like Tribeca and SXSW are pushing outside the area of indie film to create alluring events for audiences, from interactive transmedia showcases and TV series premieres to high-profile panels, Q & As and "Master Classes." Giving people awards and tributes is another route pursued by awards-friendly fests like Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, as well as this summer's Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, which lured Mel Gibson, William Friedkin and Laura Dern. Even Karlovy Vary submitted to the inevitable, programming HBO's "True Detective" and "The Normal Heart" and honoring production/management combine Anonymous Content's Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, who are involved with commercials and television as well as movies and directors.
So Allain may be right to pursue a different approach. Let's just hope she doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.