News Article | 9/21/2006

City bids to expand its standing in the film world

They brought out the big guns and said all the right things Wednesday morning at Victory Plaza for the official announcement of the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. They talked about sharing and cooperation and putting heads in hotel beds. They praised founding sponsor Victory Park until you expected the entire complex to launch itself in the air, repair the space shuttle and cure cancer on the way down.

Yes, hope springs eternal for AFI Dallas, which plans to show 150 films at 11 venues from March 22 through April 1 of next year.

This is no small-time operation. Sponsors include Victory Park, Target, Bank of America and American Airlines. The honorary board boasts names including Ross Perot Jr. , Ray Nasher, Todd Wagner and Jack Valenti. Chairman and founder Liener Temerlin, the Dallas advertising titan with more connections than an Internet cafe, has raised somewhere in the area of $3.5 million.

Now we get to see if the big, new kid on the block can put its money where its, uh, money is. That means landing great, timely and meaningful films, and building AFI Dallas into the kind of smooth-running destination festival that lives up to its International name.

“From day one, we will be a major international film festival,” said Mr. Temerlin, flanked on the Victory Plaza podium by Mr. Wagner, Mr. Perot, artistic director Michael Cain and other guests.

This party even came with a little philanthropy. Among the announced attractions was a trio of grants that will be awarded to filmmakers participating in the festival. Target, the presenting sponsor of the event, will fund a pair of $25,000 grants, which will be awarded to the directors of the best narrative and documentary films. Mark Cuban’s HDNet will award a grant to the director of the best high-definition film. The dollar amount of that grant is still to be determined.

But becoming a “major international film festival” still might take a little while. There aren’t many: Cannes, Toronto, Berlin and Venice top the list. Sundance, New York and Telluride lead the U.S. contingent. AFI’s existing festival, in Los Angeles, is no small potatoes. But it’s not among the elite.

Closer to home, there’s the question of how the AFI Dallas juggernaut will impact the city’s other festivals, particularly the USA Film Festival, which had been Dallas’ largest and traditionally runs in April. Are there enough sponsorships to go around? Is there enough viewer interest to go around?

“I hope this leads into the USA Film Festival in a positive way,” said Mr. Cain, an AFI graduate and former head of the late Deep Ellum Film Festival.

“There’s no reason why all of the festivals can’t cross-promote each other, and that would be a good thing for Dallas.”

Mr. Cain originally envisioned bringing an AFI film school to Dallas. But conversations with Mr. Temerlin and Mr. Wagner led to the festival idea. Mr. Temerlin, a former AFI trustee who hatched the institute’s successful “100 Years … 100 Movies” program (which likely will churn out top-100 lists until the next ice age), brought the idea to AFI. Some $800,000 in licensing and consulting fees later, a festival was born.

Dallas has sustained a number of smaller festivals, a pair of art houses (the Magnolia and the Angelika, both among the festival venues), and a part-time art house (the Inwood, another festival venue that has taken to showing the occasional blockbuster).

This local audience will be crucial to the fortunes of AFI Dallas, at least in the beginning. The upper crust of the city has long shown its enthusiasm for big names and glitzy parties, and AFI Dallas should have both. But for the festival to build its reputation for the long haul, it needs the support of an adventurous film community with an appetite for international fare.

“It’s going to take participation by the public,” said Angus Wynne, an honorary board member and longtime fixture of the Dallas entertainment scene.

“They’ve already supported the other festivals, but those haven’t had the money, the personnel or the connections that the AFI festival brings to the table. It’s going to be quite a bit different from any festival I’ve seen here up to now.”