SHOTS HEARD 'ROUND THE WORLD AFI FEST GAINING CURRENCY ON FILM FEST CIRCUIT.
AFI FEST 2003, opening today, still lurks in the shadows of internationally renowned film festivals such as Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance, but it is gaining industry respect and audience notice as a showcase for award-worthy titles and cinematic treasures from Europe, Asia and Latin America.
``Beginning last year and this year, I think it's moving in the right direction, because it's trying to be a true international film festival, a festival that brings in films from around the world,'' said film critic Henry Sheehan, who has attended festivals around the globe for about 20 years.
Sheehan, who reviews films for KCET and KPCC-FM as well as online at henrysheehan.com, said the American Film Institute's yearly showcase has improved greatly since festival director Christian Gaines set its focus on international works.
``They had that bad period where they tried to be an American independent film festival and that was a terrible idea for the AFI,'' Sheehan said. ``It's not a terrible idea for Los Angeles because the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival does it well, but the AFI Fest wants to be the major festival for the second largest city in the country and the only way to do that is to be an international festival.''
The 17th annual AFI Fest, running through Nov. 16, has 14 films in the International Feature Competition, among them the U.S. premiere of ``Nicotina,'' a comedy production of Mexico, Argentina and Spain and starring Diego Luna of ``Y Tu Mama Tambien.''
There are 12 projects in the International Documentary Competition, eight in Latin Cinema, eight in Asian New Classics, 12 in the European Showcase and six in Beyond Conflict: Focus on the Middle East. The 10 titles in its Made in Germany section include a new Robert Fischer documentary about Hollywood's influence on the work of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, titled ``Fassbinder in Hollywood.''
``Providing Angelenos a festival of record for international films - something that people can step into year after year and think, 'I know this festival' - that's paramount for us,'' Gaines said.
Festival watchers have praised AFI's decision to set up the entire film series at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, which combines the glam appeal of the 40-year-old Cinerama Dome with a new multiplex, gracious reception areas and, most important in Los Angeles, easy parking.
It paid off in 2002, with attendance of some 40,000, up about 33 percent from the previous year when moviegoers shuttled among four Hollywood venues. Regular attendees even noted the greater diversity of the audience, which could be attributed to wider marketing and the appeal of its international titles.
Sheehan sees funding as AFI Fest's greatest hurdle toward gaining importance on the world cinema scene. He suggested more money from Los Angeles-based businesses such as real estate developers, law firms and fashion companies would allow Gaines more manpower and travel funds dedicated to seeking out the best new international films and setting AFI for their world or U.S. premieres.
More money also would feed the publicity animal, which lures not only moviegoers but celebrity actors and filmmakers and would in turn attract more high-end sponsors.
``You have to replace the money you spend on a year-to-year basis - that's the bare minimum,'' Gaines said. ``Corporate sponsorship is a critical component and a main funding source for the festival, which offers brand awareness and visibility in exchange for value. Ticket and pass sales is a rapidly growing critical arm of our funding.
``It's always a struggle, it's always a challenge,'' he said. ``I spend a lot of time on it, as do a lot of people here. It's just a part of the work.''
With the exception of some deals brokered in the Kodak Connect center, Gaines does not wish AFI Fest to become a market for distribution deals as Cannes and Sundance are.
``The last thing we want is to spring a market on the film community with all the pressure and anticipation that engenders,'' he said.
But the AFI has taken a step toward merging the creative and commercial sides of the industry with an alliance with the annual American Film Market, which next year will shift its annual gathering from February to November, abutting the AFI Fest dates on the calendar. ``Even if there is a very limited cross section of participants involved in both, I think it will be a very active, very intensive cross section,'' Gaines said.
Sheehan praised Gaines and his staff (six year-round, growing to about 30 paid positions at festival time) for ``doing a really good job in the face of no support.''
``If a city wants to have an international status as an arts capital it absolutely needs to have a respectable film festival,'' Sheehan said. ``Unless these businesses stand up and put their money there, Los Angeles isn't going to have one.''
Gaines said when he joined AFI Fest in summer 2000, his colleagues in the film fest trade suggested it would be a tough assignment.
``Everybody said, 'Good luck running a festival there. The L.A. audience is a cynical audience and no one wants to go to anything unless it's free or there are a bunch of celebrities.'
``But it's not just a company town,'' Gaines said. ``It's turning into a great festival town. The appetite for specialty cinema is changing for the better.
``We went from wondering how we were going to get people into theaters to wondering how we're going to deal with crowds, and that's been a major turnaround.''
AFI Fest has launched some sleeper hits of recent awards seasons, including ``Monster's Ball,'' ``You Can Count on Me'' and ``The Cider House Rules.''
The buzz this year is mostly whirling around three films:
Robert Altman's ``The Company'' examines the grittier side of artistic creation in a story of a ballerina (Neve Campbell) as she goes through her paces under a tough taskmaster (Malcolm McDowell) (7 p.m. Nov. 15).
``House of Sand and Fog,'' with Oscar winners Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, involves two people embroiled in a fight over ownership of a house (7:30 p.m. Sunday).
``The Statement'' stars Tilda Swinton and Oscar winner Michael Caine. Directed by Norman Jewison, (``In the Heat of the Night,'' ``The Hurricane'') and based on a Brian Moore novel, the film involves a war criminal who had lived a quiet, anonymous life for decades before being put in the spotlight by a new investigation (8 p.m. Wednesday).
But the next awards-season darling or a sleeper hit may as easily be lurking elsewhere in the festival schedule, awaiting a few rave notices and good word-of-mouth rippling through the AFI party scene. There are also a number of offbeat films that are already drawing interest from cinephiles. Here are some you might want to check out:
``Calendar Girls,'' which kicks off the festival tonight, stars Helen Mirren and Julie Walters and is based on a true story of a group of Yorkshire women (7:30 tonight).
``The Fog of War,'' the new documentary from Errol Morris (``The Thin Blue Line''), examines the rise of Robert McNamara, JFK and Lyndon Johnson's secretary of defense and one of the architects of the Vietnam War.
The industry's fresh obsession with Florida murderer Aileen Wournos is the subject of ``Monster,'' the sold-out closing-night gala with Charlize Theron in the title role (8 p.m. Nov. 16). Wournos is also the subject of director Nick Broomfield's ``Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer,'' his second documentary on her (9:45 p.m. Friday).
``In America,'' director Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical story, follows an Irish family that immigrates to New York City following the death of an infant son. Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine play the parents of scene-stealing sisters Sarah (10) and Emma (6) Bolger (7:20 p.m. Friday).
``The Triplets of Belleville'' is a French animated production with quirky characters and big musical numbers (7:45 p.m. Wednesday).
``Frankie and Johnny Are Married'' takes a surprisingly charming look at self-deprecating TV producer-director Michael Pressman's near crash- and-burn experience with Equity-waiver theater, which could have cost him his marriage to his leading lady (10 p.m. Saturday and 3:20 p.m. Monday).
``The Barbarian Invasions/Les Invasions Barbares,'' Canada's submission for Best Foreign Language Film, is from director Denys Arcand (``Love and Human Remains''). It chronicles a man's return home to his ailing father's bedside, which is surrounded by relatives, friends and former mistresses (6:30 p.m. Saturday).
In ``Japanese Story,'' Toni Colette stars as an ambitious geologist who suddenly finds herself having to baby-sit a taciturn Japanese businessman. Hoping to strike up a business deal, she agrees to take him on a field trip to Australia's remote Pilbara desert, where they leave more and more of what they know about each other and themselves behind (9:15 p.m. Nov. 15).
Actor/director Jon Favreau (``Elf'') plays an out-of-work actor trying to make sense of such disparate elements as a blue suitcase, 75 missing people, a neighbor who loses his head and a cryptic cowboy in ``The Big Empty'' (7 p.m. Sunday and noon Monday).
All screenings are at the ArcLight Hollywood (6360 Sunset Blvd.), with the exception of the Omar Sharif retrospective, which is playing at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.). General admission tickets are $11. Passes range from $95 to $500. Nonpass tickets to the opening and closing galas are sold out, but last-minute rush tickets may be available. For information: (866) 234-3378 or www.afi.com/afifest/2003.
Valerie Kuklenski, (818) 713-3750
5 photos, box
The Art of a Film festival
(1 -- cover -- color) `THE STATEMENT'
(3) `CALENDAR GIRLS'
(4) `THE COMPANY'
(5) `HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG'
WHAT'S PLAYING (see text)