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FEWER FILMS, BETTER QUALITY; AFI FEST DRIVEN BY ITS OWN VERSION OF CANNES-DO ATTITUDE.

Byline: Valerie Kuklenski Daily News Staff Writer

Jon Fitzgerald believes bigger is not always better, whether he's talking about a film's budget or the festival showcasing that project.

As the new director of the American Film Institute's Los Angeles International Film Festival, he decided the best way to draw more attention to the event's 11th year was to pare it down and make each night something special. Quality over quantity.

``We cut the festival in half in terms of number of screenings, number of days and number of films,'' he said. ``That was to allow us to give a smaller number of films more attention.''

While the festival opening Thursday is smaller, the 30-year-old director's aspirations for it are grand in scale.

``I think that L.A. deserves to have the premier festival in the United States,'' he said. ``We've really changed the direction of this festival to move toward achieving that goal. The table is set with the resources of AFI and being in the back yard of the film industry. We're ready to go in that direction.''

For many years, North American film festivals were perceived by Hollywood as places to go for a change of scenery (Toronto or Seattle), a tax-deductible trip to the slopes (Telluride or Sundance), or an opportunity to catch some good little films that may or may not make it to a neighborhood art house.

Fitzgerald said it wasn't until Steven Soderberg's ``sex, lies, and videotape'' played Sundance in 1989 that studio decision-makers began to see dollar signs in the kinds of projects that surface at film festivals.

Fitzgerald, by the way, co-founded Park City's Slamdance Film Festival two years ago in response to the commercial success of Sundance that led to an overabundance of film entries and too few seats to accommodate all those movie buffs. Slamdance provided an outlet for filmmakers who didn't make the Sundance cut - Fitzgerald included - as well as more viewing choices.

More appealing

Fitzgerald set out to make the AFI fest more appealing to the industry, both as financial sponsors of the 10-night festival and as potential buyers of the talent it showcases. In addition to TriStar and Miramax, AFI boasts the support of the writers, directors and screen actors guilds, Buzz and Filmmaker magazines, Panavision and the Media One cable concern.

He doesn't expect or even want to make it another Cannes, with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis kowtowing to exhibitors and international market packagers.

But Fitzgerald sees AFI as a chance for novice and near-novice filmmakers and actors to show off their stuff and perhaps wrangle another project for a little more money and - golly! - a real distribution deal.

He said Hollywood is just waking up to the notion that there is a deep pool of talent revealed at AFI.

``Now the industry knows that they can, No. 1, find films that haven't already been picked up for distribution and release them, and, No. 2, whether it's a production company looking for a new director or a talent agent looking for new talent to sign, they can find them here,'' Fitzgerald said.

``These are filmmakers that, after making their low-budget films and being recognized in festivals, will go on to make bigger-budget studio films, and studios need to pay attention to that,'' he said, pointing to director Scott Hicks, whose success with ``Shine'' led to a deal with Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks studio.

Fitzgerald sees it as a meet-and-greet industry and this year has established a venue at AFI for schmoozing, small-talking and big-dealing. The 6,000-square-foot hospitality suite, set up in Hollywood's Galaxy theater complex, will be available to filmmakers, industry executives, film distributors and the media, with a public information booth and merchandise.

Within the suite is the more exclusive Cinema Lounge for festival pass holders, VIPs and reporters, complete with phones, computer access and the all-important complimentary beer, wine, gourmet coffees and food.

Schmooze territory

``It's nice for filmmakers to sit around and get to share stories about their films,'' Fitzgerald aid. ``It will become the nerve center for the festival, I think.''

Another first this year will be AFI fest's Spotlight Awards, among them a grand jury prize; a $20,000 studio prize offered by Miramax Films for the best feature by a first- or second-time American director; writing, directing and acting honors sponsored by their respective guilds; and an audience-voted award for best student short, which gives the winner $12,000 worth of production services.

The grand jury competition includes 11 films from around the world, all of them premieres.

Fitzgerald is particularly proud that TriStar has chosen to debut its period drama ``Swept From the Sea'' on the festival's opening night.

Seattle and Toronto's festivals this year offered literally hundreds of movie titles each, while AFI has slated a tidy 52, give or take a few animated and live-action shorts packaged together.

Fitzgerald says that one day, the AFI fest may be able to expand to an equally full program, but not now.

``I think that takes time,'' he said. ``What needs to happen is there needs to be an emphasis on premieres. The reason that Cannes has become a market is because it focuses on premieres, and people need to go there for the new talent. Hollywood really wants to discover new talent. (Film festivals have) become the farm system for new American filmmakers.

``I'm definitely focusing my energies on this year, but I think if this year achieves the success everyone's hoping it will, I think it's on its way to that plateau, which is becoming the premier event in the country.''

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Photo: ``We cut the festival in half ... That was to allow us to give a smaller number of films more attention,'' says Jon Fitzgerald, new director of the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 22, 1997
Words:974
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