Swimmin’ pools…movie stars… The LA Film Festival (LAFF) covered an impressive amount of creative and industry ground. “Presented by” the Los Angeles Times, LAFF boasts a massive array of corporate and private sponsors and affiliates, including Budweiser, Kodak, Technicolor, IFC, American Airlines, Nokia, Virgin Megastore…get the idea? Unlike smaller festivals which primarily look to showcase new and emerging talent, LAFF attempts to draw ticket buyers with everything from the glitzy Hollywood (well, Westwood) premiere of The Devil Wears Prada starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, to short film programs that range from American and foreign indie filmmakers to high school kids. In addition to the many cinematic offerings, which include free screenings of classic films and a tribute to Pixar, the brilliant animation studio that produced Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and the current Cars, LAFF also offered dozens of networking and filmmaking expos and seminars. Panels included Digital Filmmaking, Diversity, Film Festivals and an all-day series of workshops on film financing, which this reporter attended. Even to a Hollywood insider, the methods by which film deals are structured and financed can be Byzantine. However, a few salient facts emerged from the panels, and indeed, the overall paradigm for film financing has shifted somewhat radically over the past few years. Foreign sales and distribution now play a major part in film finance. Hollywood films have always been one of America’s most reliable exports, but nowadays films are “green-lit” largely on the basis of their foreign appeal and sales potential. Studios and producers as a matter of course try to pre-sell their films in foreign territories, with the hope that those monies will guarantee the film’s budget and the break-even point. Ancillary rights (dvd’s, cable, etc.) as well as domestic distribution are retained, and therein lies the hoped-for profit for the filmmakers. Yes, there is much foreign money available, but there are de facto and actual strings attached. In order to get foreign financing, the film must have at least one star attached. Also, subject matter becomes even more problematic; for instance, quirky, “hip” comedies often do not translate well into foreign sensibilities, thus placing limitations on what indeed might be a successful film in the USA. More than ever, film is a global marketplace, and as a result, often the more creative, adventurous films find it difficult to find a niche in foreign markets that still tend to prefer Hollywood blockbusters. Closer to home, the panel on domestic production incentives was informative as well as a kind of wake-up call to the California film industry as a whole. Representatives of the states of New Mexico and Louisiana, as well as accountants and lawyers familiar with putting together “out of state” deals, made a compelling case to, well, quite frankly, avoid shooting in California at all costs. New Mexico offers an interest-free loan program of up to $10 million per picture, based on a previously secured distribution agreement or collateral against the loan. They also offer a 25 percent cash rebate on all good and services purchased in New Mexico during the shoot – everything from crew salaries to supplies, hotels and transportation. They are also organized and most eager to help. They have truly constructed a win-win program that benefits not only the filmmakers, but pumps millions of dollars into the local economy and puts thousands of New Mexicans to work. Louisiana offers similar incentives, and now over 40 states offer some kind of financial/services package to lure film production to their neck of the woods. And what about California? Well, it’s a toughie. It’s hard for the state government to offer incentives to keep film production in-state, given the fact that, no matter how you cut it, LA is, and always will be, the film production capital of the world (although at this point, Bombay may be winning…). So to offer kickbacks or other incentives would necessitate pulling money from other areas of the already over-extended state treasury, and many Californians would rightly complain about giving an already wealthy industry additional tax breaks. Of course on the flip side, the guy who scraped together $200 grand to make his picture, or the producer making movies in the $1 million range are simply going to go where their dollar stretches the farthest, thus taking money out of the local economy. (Any thoughts on this one, Gubernator?) Coming back to the real point of any film festival, a screening of an absolutely first-rate Israeli film entitled Close to Home, written and directed by Dalia Hager and Vidi Bilu, was part of LAFF’s Spotlight on Israel series. Close to Home centers around the friendship between the outgoing, rebellious, sexually forthright Smadar, and the shy, yet eager-to-please Mirit, both new soldiers on domestic duty in the Israeli army. Brilliantly acted by Smadar Sayar and Naama Schendar, both of whom should be international stars, Close to Home paints a compelling portrait of an unlikely friendship that blossoms amidst the constant tension of daily life in Israel. Assigned to patrol a few square blocks, the girls’ main responsibility involves asking Arabs for their I.D. and then registering them in a logbook. The exercise is often pointless if not ridiculous, and yet, as a terror attack vividly reminds the two young women, it is a necessity of Israeli life that security, even at its most mundane and pedestrian, be at the forefront of every Israeli’s consciousness. Tellingly, the ritual I.D. checking is often more degrading to the Israeli soldiers than the Arabs. The two heroines, as do all the young women in their unit, attempt to treat each Arab with dignity and respect, but they are often confronted with anger and resentment that, despite its legitimacy, cannot be allowed to deter them from executing their responsibilities. Still, the strain sometimes gets the better of the two young women, and early in the story, Smadar is wont to let seemingly innocuous-looking Arabs go about their business without checking their I.D.’s, a tendency that gets both girls in hot water with their superiors. As the story progresses, Smadar and Mirit fall in love with handsome Israeli men, run afoul of their superiors, bicker and reunite. Filmmakers Bilu and Hager do a fine job – the writing is clean and spare and the gritty verite-style cinematography creates an atmosphere both intimate and foreboding. And most refreshingly, the filmmakers cut only when necessary, allowing the camera to linger on the actors as their thoughts and emotions powerfully unfold. One hopes this fine film will eventually receive a large, international audience. In all, LAFF is a successful, well-organized enterprise, with enough creative and industry events to attract a wide range of cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers. Given the vast corporate sponsorship of the Festival, it’s a shame many of the events had prohibitive costs. The LAFF should not look to take so large a bite out of young filmmakers’ wallets in order to access the information and industry professionals who make up such a vital part of the Festival. For further information, visit www.lafilmfest.com.
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