This month the city becomes even more alive with artists from around the globe sharing their talents, passion, and artistry with one another. It is the month of the LA Film Festival, where industry heavyweights and newcomers alike share the same room to see world premieres, enlightening documentaries and interesting roundtables. The festival is a great place to watch amazing films that you might not get to see in your local movie theater, as well as, network and meet other like minded individuals.
However, navigating this huge festival can be overwhelming even to an industry veteran. With that in mind, I reached out and asked the programmers who are in charge of the LA Film Festival for tips on special events, and films that should not be missed. The following are the gems of wisdom from LA Film Festival Director of Programming Roya Rastegar, Senior Programmer Jennifer Wilson, and Senior Programmer & Head of Filmmaker Relations Drea Clark.
You watch hundreds of films that are submitted. What type of filmmaking risks or innovations do you find most interesting?
Clark: There are a lot of submissions we receive that are competently directed, that tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. But the filmmaking we are looking for is more distinctive, and has the signature of a true directorial voice. That uniqueness can be applied to films that are edgy and bold, but it is just as crucial and exciting to find it when applied to more commercially accessible genres, like romantic comedy. What we ultimately are looking out for is a director who is able to make a really fresh, personalized stamp on their film.
What is your favorite and hardest part of the selecting process?
Clark: The hardest part is the sheer volume of films you’re watching, and how easy it becomes to second guess your choices the deeper and deeper you get into viewing films. Film programming is a completely subjective process, yet you’re trying to make objective calls about a film’s merit; generally entirely in a vacuum, as you’re often the first person to see the film. So what could be a brilliant, thought-provoking take could also just be a sloppy mistake. It is up to your eyes, experience and judgment to make the difference. You also know, all the while, that these filmmakers have entrusted you with their babies, and that is a big weight to carry, to want to do right by everyone while not letting gems slip through the cracks. The flip of that is when you are watching something and you just KNOW that you’ve found something special- it’s crackling, and new, and stands out, and then you bring it to the team and other people have the same reaction. That’s the best. It’s all just panning for gold.
There are many great films, but what makes a film a good fit for the LA Film Festival?
Clark: Similar to the above, it’s really important to us to be a festival of discovery. We want to help launch new talent, and we want the audiences of Los Angeles to get a chance to discover new talent via the Festival. Because we’re in such rarefied air here, so to speak, that holds a different charge than it would in other cities. Los Angeles is chock full of people with a wide breadth of film knowledge, so wanting to satisfy that taste level while still bringing some films that challenge them, or films they wouldn’t regularly get a chance to see, that’s the sweet spot. And, because our hometown business is the entertainment industry, we also keep an eye out for filmmakers who have impressed us with the film we’ve selected (and more often than not, it’s their first). It also makes us excited to see what else they could create if supported enough to make a career out of it.
How do you decide which film will be premiered at Opening Night?
Wilson: I think our Festival Director, Jennifer Cochis, knew that she wanted Book of Henry for Opening Night fairly early on in our process this year and the director, Colin Trevorrow really wanted to do it too so it was just a matter of working out the logistics. We were so ecstatic to get the film and I think audiences are really going to love it.
Are there any similar themes that this year’s films all share?
Rastegar: We don’t program by theme, so there isn’t a theme that all this year’s (or any year’s) films share.
Watching thousands of films every year gives us incredible insight into the mindset and mood of independent filmmakers, especially those from American ones. This past election cycle was brutal, and we can see the impact of that already on the films submitted. But what we also see is determination, resilience, and an understanding that we need each other to re-build.
What films do you think are the most anticipated for this year’s festival?
Wilson: We tried extra hard to make our Buzz section super Buzz-y this year! It was kind of a combination of what did well at other festivals plus whatever, we, ourselves, were really excited to see. I’m expecting Brigsby Bear, Patti Cake$, The Beguiled, My Friend Dahmer, Whitney: Can I Be Me and The Big Sick to be pretty hot sellers.
Is there anything extra special happening at this year’s festival that attendee’s should know?
Wilson: We have so many things its hard to name just one! I think the G-Funk screening at the Ace Hotel with Warren G is going to be so amazing. Living on Soul with the artists from Daptone Records at LACMA will be great. Our Diversity Speaks panels are always really special, one-of-kind events, and finally Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen doing an evening about their favorite moments from Portlandia at the Kirk Douglas Theater right before their last season airs–I don’t know what could be better!
Is there something that all Fest films share?
Rastegar: Our programming team is built across an intersection of identities and we are committed to building a program that is diverse across taste, style, genre, and perspective. The only thing the films in the competition sections have in common is that each and every one of them has been advocated for passionately and deliberated over carefully.
What is the most unique aspect about the films and atmosphere in the LA FILM FEST versus other fests?
Rastegar: There is a lot of talk and research about the importance of making the industry more diverse. Film festivals are in a vital position to lead this charge, and find unique perspectives and strong voices.
Festivals need to radically re-orient our programming processes to find and showcase the immense amount of storytelling talent out there by directors of color, queer and trans directors, and directors from economically disenfranchised areas. In order to create a program that is reflective of our society (and not simply proportional to what is submitted to us), we must spend a great deal of time doing outreach to the communities that we want to see more stories from.
What three tips of advice would you give someone planning on attending for the first time?
Clark: The difference between a local festival and a destination festival is that oftentimes, people at a local festival will just pop in for a screening and then fade back to their real lives without really immersing into the feel of the Festival. So, my first advice would be to try and really make it an outing instead of just a regular night at the cinema! In addition to all the films, we have a great assortment of panels, events, and a very cool environment to be in- meeting other filmmakers and attendees.
The second tip would be to embrace the Rush Line. We never say films are “sold out” at the Festival, because we’re almost always able to seat people from the Rush Line. It’s a great way to get into films that don’t have tickets available and are really buzzed about and exciting.
Finally, take advantage of the Festival environment and introduce yourself to a filmmaker if you really dug the film! It’s a rare opportunity to have the access and wherewithal to share your personal reaction with the person who made it, and most of our filmmakers are just starting their career and positive reinforcement means even more!
“This past election cycle was brutal, and we can see the impact of that already on the films submitted. But what we also see is determination, resilience, and an understanding that we need each other to re-build.”
– Roya Rastegar, Director of Programming for LA Film Festival
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(All images are courtesy of LA Film Festival, Film Independent and WireImage)