A trea­sure hunt

The mission for this year’s lineup was greater di­ver­sity. The event’s staff found a trove of fe­male and mi­nor­ity di­rec­tors.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY RE­BECCA KEE­GAN

While scout­ing movies for this year’s Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val, or­ga­niz­ers got ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions with agents, man­agers and stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives.

“We’d tell them, ‘Our pri­or­ity is pre­sent­ing di­verse points of view,’ and there was an un­com­fort­able si­lence,” fes­ti­val direc­tor Stephanie Al­lain said. “They’d say, ‘Well, we don’t have any fe­male di­rec­tors, and we don’t have any di­rec­tors of color.’”

That’s the kind of re­sponse Hol­ly­wood usu­ally gives when pressed about open­ing up its di­rect­ing ranks to more women and mi­nori­ties. But it didn’t sat­isfy the LAFF lead­ers, who in­stead went on their own tal­ent hunt, which in­volved delv­ing deeper into un­usual sources and ac­tively seek­ing un­con­ven­tional points of view.

“You’d be sur­prised how many peo­ple look at you and say, ‘Oh, I get it, you’re just giv­ing peo­ple a break,’ ” said Al­lain, who cham­pi­oned the 1991 John Sin­gle­ton movie “Boyz n the Hood” while a pro­duc­tion ex­ec­u­tive at Columbia and pro­duced the re­cent in­de­pen­dent films “Be­yond the Lights” and “Dear White Peo­ple,” both from African Amer­i­can di­rec­tors.

“This is the big lie, that if I’m go­ing to hire a woman or a per­son of color, I’m go­ing to have to com­pro­mise, that I’m do­ing it to check the di­ver­sity box.”

LAFF, which opens Wed­nes­day and runs through June 18 at Mi­crosoft Theater (for­merly L.A. Live), mag­ni­fied its em­pha­sis on di­ver­sity for this year’s fest. The re­sult is a slate with 40% of the fea­ture films di­rected by women and nearly 30% by peo­ple of color. (LAFF does not in­clude its for­eign films in the tally of non­white di­rec­tors.)

Those statis­tics stand in stark con­trast to the wider film in­dus­try, where women di­rected 4.6% of ma­jor stu­dio movies in 2014, ac­cord­ing to a Los An­ge­les Times anal­y­sis, and mi­nori­ties di­rected 12.2% of films in 2011, ac­cord­ing

to a UCLA study. It’s also far more than many other fes­ti­vals, such as the re­cently con­cluded Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, where two of this year’s 19 com­pe­ti­tion films were di­rected by women.

“The stan­dard gate­keep­ers have not reached the point where di­ver­sity is some­thing they’re ac­tively look­ing for,” said Josh Welsh, pres­i­dent of Film In­de­pen­dent, the non­profit arts or­ga­ni­za­tion that or­ga­nizes LAFF. “Whether it’s un­con­scious bias or some­thing else, they have their habitual ways of sourc­ing new tal­ent and new sto­ries, and those film­mak­ers are not mak­ing it in.”

Stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives of­ten say the pool of tal­ent is small — there aren’t as many women and mi­nori­ties who have di­rected films of the bud­get and scope re­quired to take on large stu­dio films. But LAFF or­ga­niz­ers say they achieved their un­usu­ally di­verse slate by cast­ing a wide net to find tal­ented fe­male and mi­nor­ity film­mak­ers.

The first step to find­ing those film­mak­ers, Al­lain said, was en­list­ing a broad group of 40 peo­ple to screen the thou­sands of films that were sub­mit­ted.

“You need di­ver­sity among your screen­ers, be­cause what you value is what you know,” she said. “When peo­ple watch a film and iden­tify with it, they say, ‘This is a good film.’ When the per­spec­tive veers away from that, peo­ple think it isn’t good.

“When you look at the way film crit­ics re­view films di­rected by women, for ex­am­ple, some­times they just don’t get it. We told our screen­ers, ‘Look for peo­ple who are see­ing the world dif­fer­ently.’ ”

Among the film­mak­ers they found were Daphne McWil­liams, a black pro­ducer mak­ing her di­rect­ing de­but with the doc­u­men­tary “In a Per­fect World,” about men who were raised by sin­gle moth­ers, and Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña, a Ja­panese Amer­i­can woman whose movie “No Más Be­bés” chron­i­cles ac­cu­sa­tions of forced ster­il­iza­tion of Lati­nas at L.A. County-USC Med­i­cal Cen­ter dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s.

Pro­gram­mers also scanned the trade press, tracked fu­ture projects of ac­tors and cin­e­matog­ra­phers they knew and re­lied on their own re­la­tion­ships with tal­ent to find di­rec­tors from dif­fer­ent back­grounds. LAFF se­nior pro­gram­mer Jen­nifer Co- chis, a pro­ducer of the 2012 film “Smashed,” reached out to a friend, Na­tive Amer­i­can direc­tor Ster­lin Harjo, and per­suaded him to pre­miere his next film, “Mekko,” set in Tulsa, Okla., at the fes­ti­val.

The goal was to have fewer of what or­ga­niz­ers con­sid­ered “fes­ti­val films.” Asked what that meant ex­actly, Cochis ex­plained, “They usu­ally have a lot of flan­nel.”

But the di­ver­sity fo­cus meant re­ly­ing less on what many other fes­ti­vals use as a marker of suc­cess: book­ing fa­mous names. And it means that 80% of the 81 fea­tures come from ei­ther first- or sec­ond-time di­rec­tors.

“Be­cause we’re in L.A. and this town is full of cre­atives, we don’t have to have a fes­ti­val full of stars,” said Roya Raste­gar, LAFF’s as­so­ciate direc­tor of pro­gram­ming and cu­rated con­tent. “We can be a fes­ti­val that’s about find­ing new tal­ent.”

The in­dus­try is apt to be open to that tal­ent, Al­lain said, as re­cent suc­cesses like the Fox TV show “Em­pire,” with its pri­mar­ily black cast and black co-cre­ator Lee Daniels, and the movie “Pitch Per­fect 2,” di­rected by El­iz­a­beth Banks, have shown the eco­nomic virtue of hir­ing mi­nori­ties and women.

“‘Should do’ never works,” Al­lain said. “Peo­ple in the busi­ness are mo­ti­vated by what’s go­ing to make money.”

Film fes­ti­vals have of­ten pro­vided a path­way for white male di­rec­tors who went on to make big-bud­get stu­dio movies — af­ter Colin Trevor­row’s first fea­ture, “Safety Not Guar­an­teed,” made a splash at Sun­dance in 2012, Uni­ver­sal hired him to di­rect its ef­fects-driven movie “Juras­sic World,” and, af­ter Mark Webb’s first fea­ture, “(500) Days of Sum­mer,” pre­miered there in 2009, Sony picked him to re­boot its Spi­der-Man fran­chise.

LAFF sees it­self as a venue for stu­dios to ex­pand the pool of peo­ple who make those kinds of movies.

“The pri­mary gate­keep­ers are film fes­ti­val pro­gram­mers,” Raste­gar said. “It’s re­ally ur­gent that fes­ti­vals take this ap­proach of see­ing things dif­fer­ently be­cause we’re the pipe­line for films to get seen and dis­trib­uted.”

Francine Orr Los An­ge­les Times

STEPHANIE AL­LAIN,

left, Jen­nifer Cochis and Roya Raste­gar of Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val with Josh Welsh of Film In­de­pen­dent.

Clau­dio Rocha Los An­ge­les Film Fes­ti­val

A SCENE FROM Re­nee Ta­jima-Peña’s “No Más Be­bés,” which chron­i­cles ac­cu­sa­tions of forced ster­il­iza­tion of Lati­nas in Los An­ge­les in the 1960s and ’70s.

Ana Dan­tas LAFF

DAPHNE McWIL­LIAMS, shown with son Chase, is the direc­tor of the doc­u­men­tary “In a Per­fect World.”

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