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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Dallas IFF Dispatch: Parties, Programming, and the Future

One thing the Dallas International Film Festival has always known how to do well is hospitality, and this, their fifth year, was certainly no exception. This year, the fest was headquartered downtown at the lovely Hotel Joule. While the hotel for the previous two years, The Palomar, is very nice and is conveniently located right across from Mockingbird Station and the Angelika Theater, it’s also a big night spot for the SMU beautiful people crowd, which could get to be a bit much on Friday and Saturday nights. Also? The crosswalk you take to get across the very busy intersection is very busy, and it’s a right next to the highway off-ramp and seriously potentially deadly.

The Joule is a little less convenient venue-wise, but with the late-night festival lounge stumbling distance from the doors, and fest sponsor Cadillac providing abundant, always accessible rides for festival guests, that didn’t matter much. (As an aside, one of our drivers told us the top-of-the-line, platinum edition Cadillac Escalade runs something like $180,000! Holy crap. A person could make a movie for that much money.)

The downtown area near the Joule has gentrified into a great walking neighborhood (I guess that’s good or bad, depending how you feel about gentrification) with easy access to many good restaurants, and a Starbucks right around the corner. It’s also a short stroll from where JFK was shot, which provides ample opportunity for taking in a little history, which some folks got to see in (re)action, as there was apparently a taping of a reenactment of JFK’s assassination going on while the fest was happening.

As with most film fests, while the movies are the main reason for being there, guests expect the social side of things as well. Dallas has always provided ample opportunity for guests to mix and mingle and have a great time. This year was no exception.

Thursday night was the SAGIndie bash at Gilley’s, complete with a nice spread of Texas-style appetizers, the ubiquitous margaritas and beer, and tournaments for poker, karaoke, and mechanical bull riding. I skipped the bull, not wanting to get too crazy, and I missed signing up for the karaoke tourny, but I did come in second in the poker tournament, narrowly missing out on securing for myself a Texas-sized golden belt buckle. Too bad, I could have rocked that belt buckle in Seattle. I guess there’s always next year.

This year’s fest lounge was, I think, my favorite lounge in the five years of the fest, although last year’s somewhat more spacious hangout at the Palomar is a close second. This year’s lounge was just a few steps down from the hotel entrance, and while it seemed smaller and was usually hopping in the evening hours, it never felt claustrophobic.

Filmmakers and press and fest staff and passholders mingled in the space, which included (not making this up) a very cool four poster bed as one of the seating areas. Margaritas at one bar, Stella at another. Scotch upstairs. Hence, ample opportunity to imbibe if you were so inclined, and there was plenty of bottled water and Vitamin Water onhand if you’re the tee-totaling type. No Guitar Hero this year that I saw, but hey, you can’t have everything.

The big awards dinner and party at Union Station was lovely (and packed with wealthy Dallas arts patrons in clothes and jewelry way more expensive than most of the filmmakers and press and fest staff could afford). Larry Hagman was on-hand, resplendent in a JR Ewing-sized white Stetson, as was Peter Fonda, equally resplendent in sunglasses. (“Is that Jack Nicholson?” someone near me asked.) Both epitomized charm and grace and class. The one complaint everyone seemed to have was that the vast, cathedral-like space absorbed sound to such an extent that, between that and the constant table chatter, you couldn’t hear most of what was said onstage and had to look at the monitors to see which films had won.

Dallas is an interesting town in which to pull off a film festival. Big enough and rich enough to support one, certainly, but insular in a way that many out-of-towners may not get. For one thing, Dallas is big and very spread out, and the traffic, generally speaking, sucks. I noticed that this year, one of the ways the fest addressed this issue was by adding fest venues in other locations, including the wealthy suburb of Plano (smart and strategic place to expand to, guys).

Seattle’s dealt with this same issue in much the same way, adding screenings to the Eastside because honestly, Eastside Seattle, like the tonier Dallas suburbs, tends to be really insular. A lot of people who live in Bellevue, for instance, might work in Seattle if the HAVE to, but unless they’re going out for the opera or ballet or the EMP or a huge event like Bumbershoot, getting them to head across the water for an arts event can be a challenge.

Getting some of the more conservative Eastsiders to actually hang out out in an eclectic neighborhood like Capitol Hill can be even more challenging. So a couple years ago the fest added screenings at the fancy-pants movie theater in downtown Bellevue to serve that need. If the people won’t venture out to your fest because they perceive that it’s a pain in the ass to get there, well, bring the fest to them and make it easy. Smart.

One thing I did find interesting in talking to various fest patrons in line and at parties at Dallas was the number of people who asserted that they had no idea this fest has been around five years. Seriously? I found this kind of hard to believe, myself. I know the fest does all the appropriate PR, and the newspapers certainly cover the fest. But even some folks from fest sponsor TXU Energy, whose table I shared at the awards bash last night, said they had no idea DIFF existed until last year when their CEO decided the company should sponsor the student filmmaker awards.

I talked to people here and there about why the fest isn’t widely perceived as a must-attend event, but most folks I talked to didn’t really have an answer as to what the fest should do differently. The only three things I heard repeatedly were “bring in more big-name celebrities” (sigh), have more big “events,” (okay, I guess) and that the fest needs to be more visible with family-friendly events (i.e., education and outreach … which I don’t disagree with).

I remember a few years ago when the fest did this big event where they had The Wizard of Oz showing with a live orchestra in huge, very nice venue (I forget which one exactly), and that event was completely sold out and everyone was excited about it. I love when fests do silent movie events with orchestras (when Seattle did a Charlie Chaplin series a couple years ago, they packed that venue to the roof every time).

Some of these issues are funding related, of course. It costs money to fly in and put up celebs, who often have entourages and demands that lesser known filmmakers, who are just excited to have their film accepted into a fest, aren’t likely to have. Some of them are artistic choices that inform what kind of fest Dallas wants to be five or ten years from now.

If you’re going to compete head-to-head with SXSW, then really set Dallas IFF apart. Austin’s “weird.” Dallas is “class.” SXSW tends to program a very eclectic slate that can feel very random; so make Dallas IFF the fest that feels a little more highbrow, while still being reasonably accessible. SXSW is music/movies/tech and caters strongly to the 20s-30s demographic; make Dallas the fest that caters some to the young, hip Dallas urbanite, but also to the slightly older, Dallas noveau-riche, art-loving crowd.

And really nail the kid friendly stuff, make it one of the things you’re known for, not just a sidebar. Many of those slightly older patrons are people with young kids; interest them in your fest with an expansive family offerings slate and they’ll get exposed to your other activities as well.

Which brings us back around to the a question that most regional fests have to consider: what’s the role of a fest like Dallas IFF? To give filmmakers who aren’t “big” names a chance to walk the red carpet in support of their work? Absolutely. To give locals a chance to rub elbows with celebs, to sit in Union Station with Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman? Certainly. To bring challenging, smart, artsy films to an town that otherwise might not see them? Yes … and no.

The constant struggle is to figure out how to balance the idealism of art with the reality of commerce, and how to make the people with the means to support the fest feel really invested in it as patrons, while still keeping it accessible to the masses — not just the middle class, but doing outreach to the poorer communities as well — especially young people. (It would have been great, for instance, if the fest had bussed a bunch of high school kids from Dallas’s various schools and neighborhoods, rich and poor, to see The Interrupters, and then have a discussion about how a film about youth violence applies in their community.)

Artistic director James Faust and senior programmer Sarah Harris do a really terrific job of programming this fest, but I know the reality for them — as it is for the programmers at any regional fest — is that they have to carefully balance many, many factors when they choose their slate in any given year, and they aren’t always able to just cherry pick the films they personally like the most. Their job is also put put butts in seats, and to satisfy overall the people who shell out for festival passes, and that means, to a certain extent, programming accessible films as well.

Now it’s time for the fest staff to take a day or so off to breathe, before starting to think about next year. Dallas IFF is five years old now. Time to figure out what the fest’s role is within the hierarchy of regional fests. Five years, ten years, 20 years down the road, I want Dallas IFF to be around and thriving. I want people to think of Dallas IFF as they do Sarasota, or Seattle, or Hamptons — as an absolutely essential stop on the fest circuit, and as a showcase for great film. Identity and balance are the keys to that, I think. Keep up the good work, my friends. And Dallas, I’ll see y’all next year.

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“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

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~ Hideo Kojima