At the Helm of the L.A. Film Festival
“It’s really interesting how much overlap there is in terms of skill sets,” says veteran independent film producer Rebecca Yeldham of her recent, midcareer job switch. “I think what I was doing as a producer — in terms of identifying talent and fighting for opportunities and not taking no for an answer and trying to reorient people’s perspectives as to what was possible both in the making of the movie and the positioning of the movie — it’s all kind of fighting the good fight. That’s very much what’s been going on here.”
“Here” is the Los Angeles Film Festival, where the 41-year-old Yeldham came onboard as festival director this past March during a tense moment for LAFF and its parent organization, Film Independent. Four months earlier, Yeldham’s predecessor, Rich Raddon, had resigned his position following the widely publicized revelation that he had made a personal contribution to the pro–Proposition 8 political campaign. So Yeldham had to hit the ground running, with barely three months left to plan for the festival’s 2009 edition (June 18-28). Fortunately, she found a healthy support network waiting for her in the form of Film Independent Executive Director Dawn Hudson and LAFF Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, who have guided the event through its decadelong evolution, from the wan Los Angeles Independent Film Festival to one of two world-class film festivals (the other being fall’s AFI Fest) to which the city can now lay claim.
“There’s an amazing existing festival here, and I knew that because I’ve been part of it as a board member,” says Yeldham at Film Independent’s West L.A. offices, one week before the festival’s opening night. But she felt frustrated, she adds, that more of her industry peers hadn’t experienced LAFF for themselves. “One of the things I’ve wanted to do and have, to a degree, managed to do is to put this festival on the radar of those who haven’t yet partaken in it, and to widen the pool of ownership in this festival. When news broke that I was going to do this, I got all these calls saying, ‘That’s so great. L.A. needs a great festival.’ And I would say, ‘Well, actually it already has one.’”
Yeldham, whose producing credits range from the Oscar-winning The Motorcycle Diaries to the recent heavy-metal documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil and a long-in-the-works screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, is quick to praise Rosen and senior festival programmer Doug Jones’ catholic programming, which this year includes the world premiere of Michael Mann’s John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies; the latest from master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (the festival’s closing-night selection, Ponyo); and documentarian Wang Bing’s Crude Oil, a two-part, 14-hour chronicle (presented as a gallery installation) of daily life at a remote Chinese oil field. “We’re all movie lovers here,” she says. “WALL-E was my favorite movie last year; I’m not a snob about the source of the movie. I’m a snob about the quality of the movie. It’s not genre-specific, it’s not source-specific, it’s not budget-specific. That’s part of the character of the festival.”
Yeldham traces her own love of cinema back to her childhood in her native Sydney, where she came of age during the Australian filmmaking renaissance of the ’70s and ’80s, which introduced directors like Peter Weir, George Miller and Gillian Armstrong to world audiences. At the same time, she notes, “Because of the cultural cringe that existed then in Australia, the idea that we were not worthy, that we had no culture, the movie theaters were packed with art-house cinema, particularly European cinema, and then Japanese. So as a teenager, there was no distinction in my mind between English-language and foreign-language movies.”
She studied law at Sydney University but transferred to Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media department, whose storied art and semiotics program counts novelist Rick Moody, radio host Ira Glass and filmmaker Todd Haynes among its alumni. Upon graduating, she lucked into a job with the New York–based Fox/Lorber Home Video, one of the era’s premier distributors of foreign and American independent cinema, where she quickly became director of Acquisitions and Business Affairs, helping the company to acquire the distribution rights to the Dutch thriller The Vanishing; John Woo’s The Killer; and the Japanese cult film Tetsuo: The Iron Man, among others.
Yeldham then headed to the West Coast for what she describes as “a few interesting years in the production world” (including a job in the art department on the 1994 Lou Ferrigno cage-fighting movie Cage II) before landing a stint as a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, a position she held for five years. “It forced you to wrap your tongue around your thoughts and your passions and be able to articulate them,” she says of that experience. “If you could make a strong enough argument for something, it was in the festival.”
But where Yeldham’s Sundance experience coincided with the boom years for independent filmmakers and specialized distributors, she returns to the festival world at a time that finds the health and well-being of Indiewood in permanent flux, with the factors of production, distribution and exhibition changing on an almost daily basis. “So many filmmakers need assistance even wrapping their heads around how their films could be positioned and brought to market,” she says, citing as an example her own recent experience self-distributing Anvil! with director Sacha Gervasi, “If they don’t have that experience or those instincts, then why not pair them with people who do and with resources to be able to find a way. I would love to think that the festival could be part of that.”
Yeldham takes a moment to glance over the 2009 LAFF catalogue, then adds, “I love that it’s big and small, it’s challenging and accessible. I have to give credit to Rachel and Doug, because it’s so diverse and it’s not just about what’s palatable. I think there’s some really challenging work in there. People sometimes ask: ‘What is the identity of the festival?’ I think L.A. Film Festival is L.A.”
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