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Los Angeles Film Festival Lures the Hometown Crowd

Variety logo Variety 6/14/2017 Andrew Barker
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The Los Angeles Film Festival, taking place June 14-22, has always been an adaptive beast, changing over the years as it chases the moving target of exactly what it means to be a film festival in the capital of the film industry. This year, the biggest change is at the top, as Jennifer Cochis takes over for Stephanie Allain as director. Previously creative director and senior programmer at LAFF, Cochis has produced a number of L.A.-centric features (“Smashed,” “Los Wild Ones”). And she looks to continue and expand on much of the work of her predecessor, with the focus on spotlighting emerging directors and promoting a more inclusive view of the filmmaker community.

“I think our identity in terms of being a discovery festival isn’t something I’m going to alter. But I look forward to getting a little bit bigger,” she says.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

Opening with the world premiere of Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry,” and featuring highlights including Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” Hong Sangsoo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone,” and a “Portlandia” retrospective, LAFF will unspool 48 features, of which 37 are world premieres.

Though she offers the caveat “I love all our children,” Cochis calls particular attention to such films as Christian Papierniak’s “Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town” and Vincent Grashaw’s “And Then I Go” in the narrative feature competition. She gives a shout-out to Timothy McNeil’s “Anything,” Sam Hoffman’s “Humor Me,” and Lea Thompson’s directorial debut, “The Year of Spectacular Men,” which are playing outside competition. Of the documentaries, she spotlights “Monkey Business,” an animated doc about the creators of “Curious George”; “Living on Soul,” about Daptone Records; and “Built to Fail: A Streetwear Story,” which explores the collector obsessions around L.A.’s sneaker and streetwear culture.

A Bigger Tent

One of the first festivals to make filmmaker diversity a particular, explicit imperative, the fest this year boasts a slate of directors that is 42% female and 40% people of color. Furthermore, one of Cochis’ earliest changes has been to expand the Diversity Speaks panel series from one day to two, with discussions scheduled on everything from cisgender actors taking on trans parts to the whitewashing of Asian roles.

“I wanted to expand the conversation,” she says. “We’re really trying to incorporate the conversations that are happening on Twitter about these very topics, and then bringing them to the fore and actually giving them a platform.”

One Night Only

Starting this year, each of the films on LAFF’s slate will only play once. This policy is something Cochis had sought to implement last year, with the idea of turning each screening into an exclusive event.

“We’re so culturally rich [in Los Angeles], that if you tell me I can attend your birthday party three different times over the course of a month, I’ll probably try come to the last one, and then I’ll forget,” she says with a laugh. “So by making the priority screening a discovery screening, the hope I have is to generate excitement around it.”

Of course, this structure would seem to present something of a double-edged sword: With the festival overwhelmingly made up of first- or second-time filmmakers, there will be no way for festgoers to hear about a particular diamond in the rough and make a point to catch it later on.

Cochis counters that LAFF tried to accommodate late-comers to popular films last year with an encore screening series, but “as much as I was hoping they would help elevate those films or be very well attended, that wasn’t always the case,” she says.

“For me as a filmmaker, one of the things you’re chasing is your first screening. Because that screening tends to be full, and people tend to be engaged and ask thoughtful questions in the Q&A. You want that to happen throughout the rest of the festival, but I’ve had experiences at Toronto and Sundance and SXSW where you’re at that fifth screening and there’s like seven people, half of them walked out and no one asked questions. … So I’m trying to kind of crystallize that first screening experience that you’re going to be chasing this for the rest of your festival tour.”

Getting Around

Appropriately for a film festival located in the commuter capital of America, LAFF has been a bit of a nomad. Previously headquartered right across from the Staples Center in downtown, and situated across the city in Westwood before that, the fest inaugurated a another location last year, centered around the ArcLight Cinemas in Culver City, with opening night held at the theater chain’s Hollywood location.

For this year’s iteration, the fest will actually continue to spread, but methodically so. While the fest nucleus will once again be Culver City, it will hold a number of screenings at the ArcLight in Santa Monica, with other key events at the L.A. County Museum of Art midcity, and the Ace Hotel downtown.

Cochis notes that with the Metro Gold Line expansion into Santa Monica, travel between Culver City and Santa Monica is particularly quick and easy. And the fest has reached out to more local businesses to be a part of the fest.

“I really want to connect it to a place, because I look at the festival as being in conversation with Los Angeles,” she says.

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