It’s purely coincidental, of course, that this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival (June 19-29) opens for business as the aftershocks of several seismic events are still reverberating throughout the independent-film community. In the past two months, New Line, Warner Independent and Picturehouse have all shut their doors, while Paramount Vantage has seen its publicity and distribution divisions absorbed by its big-studio parent. And continuing a general buyer-beware trend, the recent Cannes Film Festival concluded with relatively few acquisitions by North American distributors, and not a high-ticket sale in the bunch.
What does that all mean? Broadly speaking, that the marketplace for independent and foreign films, having exceeded its saturation point, is once again contracting, as it did at the end of the 1980s (taking such once-enterprising producers/distributors as Cinecom, Alive Films and Island Pictures with it). As a result, the same Hollywood studios that snapped up every viable indie distributor in sight in the wake of Disney’s 1993 acquisition of red-hot Miramax seem to be looking toward new flavor-of-the-month revenue streams: IMAX, 3-D, VOD, etc.
So, LAFF arrives at a curious, where-do-we-go-from-here moment — and that uncertainty, whether by happenstance or by design, seems reflected in the festival program itself. For all the gems that programming director Rachel Rosen and senior programmer Doug Jones have plucked from the past 12 months of new world cinema (and there are many), the LAFF program also offers its share of reminders that documentaries, low-budget American indies and international art-house imports can be infected by the same depressing conformity that plagues mainstream Hollywood cinema. To wit, no less than three documentaries screening at LAFF — two of them world premieres — apply the patented (and box-office-friendly) model of Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, et al., to everything, from the national grocery-bagging championships to a South African interprison choir competition. (Can it be long before there is a documentary about the contest to get selected for the program of a prestigious film festival?) Meanwhile, of the new American narrative films available for preview, a distressing number evinced the undergraduate solipsism and complete disregard for visual style that are too often passed off as a sort of grungy hipster chic.
So, the time may indeed be nigh for a certain pressing of the indie-film reset button, and there are ample indications at LAFF of which filmmakers might be the ones to do it. Having just disparaged the new crop of American independent features, I should add that Lance Hammer’s Ballast (reviewed, along with more than 40 other LAFF movies, in the pages that follow) is as singular an American indie as I’ve seen in at least a decade — and one of the increasingly few about characters other than aimless, white 20-somethings — while James Marsh’s euphoric documentary Man on Wire has enough style and storytelling brio to make up for all those other nonfiction features resigned to coast by on content alone.
Over in the festival’s international program is a visionary film from France called La France; true to the frequent fate of such achievements, it was a box-office flop on its home turf. The commercial road will not be much easier for Ballast, which, save for its two Sundance prizes, lacks any of the conventional indie selling points: no A-list stars doing “character” turns; no KCRW-friendly, alt-rock soundtrack; no snarkier-than-thou one-liners (actually, there’s not much dialogue at all). Is there still hope for such movies to have a life in cinemas, or will they all be coming soon to a living room near you?
A festival like LAFF can lead the way, but it’s up to the audience — and the industry — to follow. As the charismatic Philadelphia culinary-arts teacher who occupies the central role in the festival documentary Pressure Cooker tells her students, “Break the mentality of the McDonald’s palate!” That’s sage advice for moviemakers — and moviegoers — too. Bon appetit!
Also, reviews and showtimes for all the films in the festival: