News Article | 3/21/2007

Big D ready to impress with film festival

The AFI Dallas International Film Festival will blanket the city for 11 days with big names, glitzy awards, venues conventional and unconventional, and, of course, movies.

It has big money ($4.4 million in cash and in-kind contributions, raised mostly by festival founder and chairman Liener Temerlin), big sponsors, including Victory Park, Target and American Airlines, and big ambitions to be the biggest film festival in Texas.

All of which is appropriate, because the inaugural festival, which begins Thursday night, also carries big expectations.

Nine venues, 90 features and billboards plastered all over the area will do that.

Organizers and interested onlookers hope that the festival will become a signpost for the city, in the same way that Toronto and Park City, Utah, have become so closely linked with their film festivals.

“We hope the festival becomes a signature event for Dallas, that it’s something that will get people to travel to our city and get to know Dallas in a way they maybe don’t already,” says Janis Burklund, head of the Dallas Film Commission. “There is a lot of misunderstanding of what Dallas is. Some people think it’s all big hairdos and hats. We want them to come and visit and understand that we’re a variety of things.”

But if you expect immediate excellence, a reality check may be in order.

Nicole Guillemet ran the Miami International Film Festival for the last five years, overseeing its rise from a moderately successful event to a destination festival that drew 70,000 visitors last year. Her new consulting gig includes advising film festivals on how to succeed.

Her recommendation for start-up festivals can be boiled down to one word: patience.

“What you need to do in the first five years is make sure everything is quality: the presentation, the hospitality, the program,” says Ms. Guillemet, who was co-director of the nation’s pre-eminent film festival, Sundance, before going to Miami. “Eventually, slowly, you try to bring acquisitions people, and you can become a place where people come and buy films. But that’s not going to happen overnight. It just takes time to build a reputation. You have to work very hard on that.”

A festival is born

Until last year, AFI Dallas artistic director and CEO Michael Cain was thinking about a film school in Dallas, not a festival. Mr. Cain, a graduate of AFI (the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute) and former head of the now-defunct Deep Ellum Film Festival, approached Dallas marketing and consulting veteran Mr. Temerlin, a longtime AFI trustee. Mr. Temerlin suggested an international film festival.

They worked out a naming and licensing agreement with AFI, then announced the festival in September.

That was just six months ago. Now it’s showtime.

There are 60,000 seats to be filled during the 11 days of screenings at the festival, which will feature big-name guests Lauren Bacall, Sydney Pollock and David Lynch. Mr. Cain says he’d be happy if 50 percent to 75 percent of those seats are put to use. The festival has booked more than 500 hotel-room nights and hopes to have as many as 700 volunteers on the job by Thursday.

But for all of that, Mr. Cain also understands the five-year plan.

“Five years from now, we’d like to be attracting world premieres,” he says. “We want to see this first crowd of filmmakers come back with another film as they move along in their careers.”

He also wants local filmmakers who have made it big – including art house favorite David Gordon Green and Napoleon Dynamite producer Jeremy Coon (who also co-produced the AFI Dallas film American Fork ) – to think of AFI Dallas as a home base of sorts.

“Every time they make a movie, we want them to think, ‘This is where I need to go show it,’ ” Mr. Cain says.

Ann Alexander, director of Dallas’ 37-year-old USA Film Festival (which will run April 19-26), said in an e-mail interview that a number of factors lead to a festival’s longevity. Among them are demonstrating fiscal responsibility and emphasizing quality and impact ahead of quantity and size.

Linking city, festival

Much is at stake. As Ms. Burklund points out, international film festivals offer the chance for a city to put its best foot forward and show itself off to the world. Ideally, the festival’s personality and the city’s personality work in tandem.

In Miami, for instance, Ms. Guillemet focused on making the festival a hub for Spanish and Portuguese cinema. The recently concluded South by Southwest, in Austin, always makes room for genre movies, as befitting the home city of the Alamo Draft House, Austin’s expertly programmed repertory house, and Robert Rodriguez, who was ubiquitous at this year’s event.

“For any festival that’s not a major buyers’ festival like Sundance, Cannes or Toronto, it’s incredibly important for the city and the festival to coalesce,” says SXSW producer Matt Dentler. “If it’s not a major market festival full of buyers, there has to be something else to define it. And what better thing than the location?”

A handful of films, including the documentaries King of Kong and A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar, found their way into both the SXSW and the AFI Dallas programs. So there’s some overlap.

But where SXSW relishes its casual, funky, “come as you are” feel that matches its host city, AFI Dallas counts among its venues the high-toned Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and Nasher Sculpture Center.

“When it was first brought to our attention that there was going to be an AFI Dallas, we thought it’s too bad it’s so close to SXSW,” says Mr. Dentler. “But at the same time, they’ll be catering to two different audiences.”

Mr. Cain sees the potential AFI Dallas audience as an eclectic crowd. “We want to be able to say, ‘Look at that crowd and how ethnically and socioeconomically diverse it is.’ ”

Big-tent approach

He sees a festival with room for both star-studded films anda student shorts competition. And an atmosphere that can be both casual and formal: “I want the people who want to dress up to dress up, and the people who don’t want to dress up not to. There’s no peer pressure other than what it is you want to be.”

On the Dallas festival front, Mr. Cain has expressed interest in working with other local festivals, including the two big nonprofits – the USA Film Festival and the Dallas Video Festival, run by the Video Association of Dallas. The Video Festival will co-sponsor the AFI Dallas screenings of Year of the Fish.

“I never fully subscribed to the Reaganesque rising tide theory, but developing a more sophisticated audience for media is one of our primary goals,” says Dallas Video Association director Bart Weiss, who was initially critical of AFI Dallas. “Having more attention paid to the independent spirit of cinema will make the city a better place to live, and Michael should be commended for the outreach work he has done with the other festivals.”

Mr. Cain also sees the festival as a showcase for the renaissance of Dallas’ Arts District. Though the festival will have its headquarters in Victory Park, home to the W Hotel and American Airlines Center, events will be at the Nasher, the Meyerson and the Dallas Museum of Art.

“There’s a certain elegance about the festival that coincides with what’s happening in the Arts District and the different venues we have around town,” Mr. Cain says.

But if AFI Dallas succeeds, says Ms. Burklund of the Dallas Film Commission, it’s not just Victory or the Arts District that wins. It’s the whole city.

“It’s heads in beds, it’s people eating out, it’s people staying in hotel rooms,” she says. “It really spreads out. It’s an economic impact like a film production, because it becomes this large breathing animal in and of itself.”