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In Battle Of The Film Festivals, Telluride Comes Into Town And Upstages LAFF In Its Own Backyard

Deadline logo Deadline 6/22/2017 Pete Hammond

The currently running Los Angeles Film Festival, which by nature of its Hollywood industry hometown roots should be cock of the walk, just can’t catch a break as interlopers like Telluride are hogging the attention.

Proving it is never too early to kick-start the movie awards season, the Telluride Film Festival once again temporarily relocated to the London Hotel rooftop deck in West Hollywood on Tuesday evening to tout this year’s upcoming Labor Day weekend edition of the fest that has increasingly become a must first-stop on the Oscar hopeful circuit. Spotted in the crowd was just about every awards pundit, lots of critics, publicists and press, and top distribution execs from the likes of Amazon, Fox Searchlight, Magnolia, Sony Pictures Classics, Roadside Attractions, The Orchard, and many more all there because, well, TFF is cool.

Telluride toppers Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy were also there of course, along with notables like Werner Herzog (who has his own skating rink-turned-pop-up theater named after him at the fest), Buck Henry, Barry Jenkins (a staffer for years at Telluride in addition to now being an Oscar-winning filmmaker), Fred Roos, and so on. TFF has been throwing this little soiree for the past few years always around the same mid-June date just as LAFF is going on, and by seeing who comes to kiss the ring you can get a temperature of what Oscar-buzzed movies might show up this year (in 2016, La La Land, Arrival, and Moonlight were among the North American or world premieres).

Although the festival and distributors keep this all top secret until the charter plane takes off for Colorado that weekend, you can piece some clues together. With that in mind I would say it is 99% that Searchlight’s tennis saga Battle Of The Sexes will be hitting the Rockies with stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone, both now Telluride veterans. No one is confirming that. No one is confirming anything except documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer as this year’s Guest Programmer, but I have a nose for this kind of stuff. I also would not be surprised to see another Telluride vet, Alexander Payne, back this year with his Paramount Christmas release Downsizing, though I know he would love to take it to Venice first since he has never had a film premiere there. Again, at this point this is all just well-sourced speculation. Still, the excitement at this event is palpable for Telluride, as well as for the upcoming season which kicks into gear as well at Venice and Toronto, all part of the fall trifecta.

So what does the identity-challenged Los Angeles Film Festival, which has shifted focus and personnel over the many years it has tried to carry the film festival moniker for the City of Dreams, think about being upstaged by this carpetbagging mountain fest the very same week it is trying to keep the spotlight on itself? Seems like it happens every year, and though no one at LAFF will openly complain, there is obvious frustration that this hometown summer staple just can’t get the same level of respect — or cooperation — from this crowd celebrating Telluride in West Hollywood.

It is interesting that TFF would choose to do their reception right in the heart of the LAFF, which this year is spread out all over town from its home base Culver City to Santa Monica, Miracle Mile, Hollywood and even downtown LA for Monday’s fun and raucous screening of Warner Bros’ August horror release Annabelle: Creation. Telluride is largely confined to one very long Western street and a ski lift. Maybe that helps, as opposed to dealing with L.A. traffic to get from one venue to another.

But, though LAFF has its own section devoted to locally inspired movies and other Los Angeles-centric oddities like the appropriately titled Izzy Gets The F#%k Across Town, it couldn’t even get to first base last year with the movie they were born to play — and one that might have been the ticket to the big time on the festival calendar. That of course is the multi-Oscar-nominated La La Land. It wasn’t for lack of trying, says new festival director Jennifer Cochis, who was promoted into the job this year after Stephanie Allain left. She says they actively search for movies about L.A. shot in L.A.

La La Land would have been phenomenal, and I remember trying for it last year, and like clearly Telluride was already right on it,” Cochis says. “But we do have our section called LA Museand it’s a competition, and there are six narrative feature films in there and six documentary films in there,” she added, sadly aware her festival in early June — post-Cannes and pre-Venice/Telluride/Toronto — can’t compete for major titles with visions of awards in their heads, even if they are right in the middle of the town that hands them out. Timing is everything, and a December release like La La Land wants greener pastures for its hopes of glory. It fulfilled them by premiering in Venice and going to all three of those fests, as well as AFI, the rival Los Angeles-based awards-centric festival in the Oscar-friendly month of November.

In fact, LAFF, put on by Film Independent, has a hard time being noticed even by the Los Angeles film industry. Only one major studio is participating this year — far less than other Southern California-based film festivals like the aforementioned AFI, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, which are all situated in the midst of awards mania and benefit from their dates in the November-February corridor. LAFF does have participation from some studio specialty divisions like Focus Features (which hosted the dismally reviewed opening-night film The Book Of Henry, a special screening of The Beguiled, as well as a 15th anniversary celebration it also did at CinemaCon and in Cannes); Fox Searchlight with its Cannes and Sundance hit Patti Cake$; and Sony Pictures Classics’ Brigsby Bear which also first played Sundance and Cannes.

But Warner Bros is the only major playing ball, as it discovered LAFF can be a great place to launch a summer horror movie — in this case Annabelle: Creation at the Ace Theatre downtown, with an incredibly responsive crowd that proved this fest can produce an enthusiastic audience second to none if the movie happens to fit their tastes.  It’s not exactly Oscar stuff, and most of the rest of the lineup outside of those films that have been on the fest circuit since Sundance are long-shots for distribution pickups. It’s almost as if L.A.. does not really want a world-class festival in its own backyard unless it serves a greater purpose, and that is the hunt for Oscar.

This week I have watched several of the LAFF premieres (most hire a publicist who are more than willing to send links), and you would be hard-pressed to find a breakout that might generate significant sales interest. It’s not that they are bad, at least some of the ones I have watched. In fact, tonight’s world premiere A Crooked Somebody from director Trevor White is actually a nifty and clever little noirish drama about a phony psychic who stumbles onto the big time when he hooks up with a killer who reveals the key to the mystery of a murder years earlier. Mad Men supporting player Rich Sommer effectively stars as the psychic with a cast that includes Downton Abbey’s Joanne Frogatt, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Clifton Collins Jr.

Sommer, fine as he is in this, isn’t yet a name that will sell it, but if someone like Ryan Reynolds were in the lead it might have a shot at a decent distribution deal. It’s tough for indies like this out there without a definite hook. Another world premiere I saw is Sun Dogs, the directorial debut of actress Jennifer Morrison (Once Upon A Time),  a quirky and entertaining offbeat film starring Michael Angarano as an off-balance young man eager to join the military but who gets sidetracked when he thinks he has been chosen to join Homeland Security. Ed O’Neil and Allison Janney both have nice scenes and the movie is watchable, but its probably too indie to get much play outside of fests like this one which seems devoted to nurturing diversity and women directors as both those areas comprise more than 40% of the LAFF programming — a stat which organizers are very proud and something Cochis insists is growing.

“We’re still the LA Film Festival committed to Film Independent’s goal representing underrepresented voices,” Cochis says as she points out the diversity of movies in the numerous sections including one of the more buzzed titles that has played this week, Shot Caller. She also brought up the aforementioned Izzy Gets The F&#k Across Town, which as it turns out had a funnier title than script in my opinion — after a while I just did not give a f&#k where Izzy gets.

But a lot of the work, if you can seek it out, is promising even if the festival has had very few breakout success stories in the past (although Richard Linklater’s Bernie did very well off its LAFF launch a few years ago). But as Cochis explains, the fest has a greater purpose in bringing first- and second-time filmmakers into the limelight, and in that regard LAFF continues to try to find their own place on the festival circuit, awards season be damned.

The Los Angeles Film Festival ends tomorrow with closing-night film Ingrid Goes West, a movie that generated buzz at Sundance this year.

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