April 7, 2010

Welcome to LA: Film Fest Serves up Cinema for the Summertime

Rachel Rosen is the director of programming for the Los Angeles Film Festival. While she oversees programming for the entire festival-and the year-round screening program at Film Independent--her background is in documentary film, having graduated from the documentary program at Stanford University. "I'm fascinated by what a movie camera and real life and time can do, and I've never gotten over that fascination," she maintains. IDA's Laura Almo caught up with Rosen as she was preparing for the opening of the 2007 edition of the festival.

IDA: How has the festival grown since you became the director of programming?

Rachel Rosen: When Film Independent took over the Los Angeles Film Festival [2001], and I came to program [2002], the goal was to build a world-class film festival in Los Angeles. Programatically, the festival hasn't changed dramatically in the past six years. The main change was to make it a celebration of all kinds of film across the spectrum, from the low-budget, do-it-yourself production to big Hollywood movies. The vision of the festival is to celebrate the full spectrum of film in a way that is fun and accessible to audiences.

IDA: Why did the festival move from West Hollywood to Westwood last year?

RR: We had gotten to the point where we had outgrown the theaters that were available to us in West Hollywood, and we wanted a place where people could hang out, and where it felt comfortable to go to more than one event or screening. Westwood really worked for that.
The move to Westwood motivated people who wouldn't necessarily be thought of as festival audiences to come out and see films. The theaters are great, and they're walking distance from each other. We closed down Broxton Avenue a couple times during the festival last year; this year Broxton Avenue is going to be the festival promenade
We'll also have one screen going at the new Landmark Theater [in the Westside Pavilion] throughout the entire run of the festival, and we'll get to screen at the new Billy Wilder Theater [at the Hammer Museum], which is truly a beautiful theater.

IDA: The LA Film Festival is about diversity and bringing different parts of LA together. How did the move to Westwood facilitate this?

RR: LA is a very diverse city, and the idea is to reflect the richness and complexity of LA in the festival. In the past we've always gotten a pretty good cross-section of people, but the core audience would be independent filmmakers from Hollywood and the east side. Those people are still an important part of our audience, but I felt like more of the general non-professional public managed to find us in Westwood.

IDA: Talk about the challenges of creating a film festival in Los Angeles, which is already a great film town and has an abundance of film festivals.

RR: As someone who came from outside of LA, I see having a film festival in Los Angeles as an advantage. The caliber of people who come to the festival to talk about their craft is really impressive. And what I like is that we're able to do it in small settings.
Our coffee talks--which are conversations between directors or actors, composers or screenwriters-are in theaters that have between one and two hundred seats. I really think that changes the experience and gives the audience the feeling of access.

IDA: How do you deal with programming challenges, specifically premieres on an international, national and local level?

RR: Well, there are two sections of the festival [narrative and documentary] where the premiere status is more important to us than it is in other sections, and those are our two competition sections. The premiere issue is always a slightly tricky one if you're not the Cannes Film Festival, but the way we've done it is, if we like two films equally, we would prefer to have a premiere because it gets more press attention and therefore more public and industry attention, and that's better for the film--and for the festival.
Festivals are here to help movies. So if we really love a movie that's played in a couple of festivals, we're not going to turn our back on it because it's not a premiere-with a few exceptions, due to timing of festivals. In general, the idea is to strike some kind of balance between showing the movies we feel the strongest about and trying to maintain a level of interest from the press and industry. And it's a work-in-progress every year.

IDA: How do you decide where and how to program films?

RR: We decide on a case-by-case basis, but the general overview is if something has been picked up for distribution or has had a major outing, it's probably in the Summer Preview section.

IDA: There are several film festivals that take place in Los Angeles. How do you distinguish yourself from some of the other high-profile ones, such as AFI Fest?

RR: I think we spend more time thinking about what our ideal festival will be than what we are in relation to other festivals. So I would say our placement in the summer allows us to be a celebration of film. And that's really our positioning, a celebration of all kinds of film. It doesn't mean we take anything we're doing lightly, but just that summer allows us to have a relaxed, celebratory atmosphere.

IDA: Any recommendations or special picks?

RR: I think the docs in the documentary competition this year are all really fascinating, and all really different.
We have new films by two filmmakers whose work we've shown in the past. We have Greg Whiteleaf, who directed New York Doll; we have his new film, Resolved, about high school debate. You start out thinking it's going to be like Spellbound, and it gets into other issues like class and privilege
We have another film by Ondi Timoner, who directed DIG!, the music documentary we showed a few years ago. This is a completely different movie; it's called Join Us, and it's about four families who are in the process of leaving their small church in South Carolina that has grown cult-like. They're at a cult victim treatment facility, and they're afraid that they're taking a step that is going to send them to hell. They're really torn about what's going on.
And then we've got this wonderful film called Jump! [Helen Hood Scheer, dir./prod.], about jump-rope competition. You just have no idea what people can do with a jump rope these days. These people are so dedicated to the sport and are trying to make it an Olympic competition. Even though they're competing, it's a really warm environment, and that's interesting too.
Because we're talking about documentary, not only are people going to get a chance to meet the directors of these films, but a lot of the people that the films are about are going to be at the festival, and that's an even more fascinating experience for the audience. Two of the people who left the cult [from Join Us] are going to be at the festival. We have a film called Billy The Kid [Jennifer Venditti, dir./prod.], about an unusual teenager in this small town in Maine, and he's going to be here with his mom.

For more information on all the offerings at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival, go to http://lafilmfest.com/. By popular demand, a third screening has been added of Oren Jacoby's Constantine's Sword: Wednesday, June 27, at 2:00 p.m. at The Landmark.

Laura Almo is a contributing editor with Documentary magazine.

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