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So Very Good

Though 2004 ostensibly marks its 10th anniversary, it could be argued that the Los Angeles Film Festival has only just turned 4, its birth (or rebirth) marked by a serendipitous moment in 2000 when the Independent Feature Project/Los Angeles entered into partnership with what was then called the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. Soon, partnership gave way to takeover: Following a lackluster 2001 festival, the IFP initiated a major managerial shakeup that, among other things, saw the replacement of longtime LAFF programming director Thomas Ethan Harris by Rachel Rosen, a veteran of one of America’s oldest and most prestigious showcases, the San Francisco International Film Festival. And so began a concentrated effort to transform the identity of what many considered a stagnant, second-tier Sundance into the most important film festival in a city where the air runs as thick with movies as it does with smog.

“My own interest has never been in American independent film per se,” Rosen told me over a recent breakfast at the Farmers Market. “I like a lot of different kinds of films, so it seemed strange to me — this idea of wanting to have a significant festival, but to be showing only American independent films, in a vacuum. It would be as if the Toronto Film Festival only showed the Canadian perspective. Here was a little group of films, and they were talking to each other, but it seemed kind of hermetically sealed.”

That Rosen was in a hurry to imprint her own identity onto the festival was evident her first time out, in 2002, when the LAFF’s previously paltry international sidebar expanded to include some 17 titles. In addition, Alfonso Cuarón was invited to curate his own program of films that had inspired or influenced Y Tu Mamá También, resulting in the first local screening in years of Jacques Rozier’s Adieu, Philippine, a seminal film of the French New Wave. Rosen’s brush strokes grew only bigger and bolder in 2003, when a special focus on Chinese cinema gave L.A. moviegoers their first (and, so far, only) chance to see Jia Zhangke’s masterful Unknown Pleasures and featured the North American premiere of Wang Bing’s landmark nine-hour documentary, West of the Tracks, which up to that point had shown only once before, in Rotterdam.

But while you can build an ambitious film festival — rooted firmly in the notion that “independent film” is not a specifically American phenomenon — the question always lingers: Will the audience come?

“I think it’s getting better year by year,” Rosen admits. “It’s a whole new set of skills the organization has to learn, because it’s a different kind of marketing. When the festival showed mostly American independent films, a lot of them were from Los Angeles, so they sort of had a built-in audience, but it was an insular one. It’s way harder to go out to the general audience in L.A. and get them to come see stuff. When I wanted to show West of the Tracks, I was like ‘I know what the audience is for this movie, and I still want to show it, so let’s find a room. Great, here’s a theater [the video-screening room at the DGA] with 30 seats in it — that’s the audience for this film. Those 30 people are going to be really happy they came, and we’ll put something else in the 500-seat theater.’”

Indeed, a large part of Rosen’s success has been her sharp knack for knowing her audience. “It’s funny,” she says, “because after 10 years in San Francisco, I knew what would go over there, and I knew generally how many people would show up to everything. It was almost the opposite of here. Invariably, programs like the 20-hour Chris Marker TV series would be the first thing to sell out there. Here, it’s not exactly anti-elitism, but there’s very much more a consciousness about popular culture in L.A. In San Francisco and New York, it’s more about intellectual culture. Of course, those are broad generalizations, and they’ll offend certain people.

“At the same time, those three cities are the same in that they already have great film cultures, so you really have to think about what a festival can do that’s different from what all the cinematheques and screening programs are doing already. Part of it is just the mix. Part of it is how things work with each other, and having guests and events so that people feel like they’re doing more than just going to see movies. There are also the logistical things that had never occurred to me. I mean, in L.A., parking is half the game.”

As to this year’s installment of LAFF — with its eclectic amalgam of sidebars, seminars and parties, an international competition numbering 20 features, three “secret screenings” that will require audiences to sign nondisclosure agreements before entering the theater, and, yes, more parking — Rosen is proud of what she’s accomplished, but hardly complacent. Speculating on the LAFF’s future, she tells me, “I want to have a little more depth to some of the areas that we’ve just started to explore. For example, I’m not an expert, but I like avant-garde film — at this point, there’ll usually be a short or two in one of the shorts programs. And I would like to do way more outdoor screenings, because for someone coming from outside of Los Angeles, that’s one of the glories of a summer festival here. Mainly, though, we want to continue on our way to being a major festival, and I don’t think we’re being shy about saying that.”

For festival information and reviews, see Film Calendar.