That's a Wrap

Meet the new 800-pound gorilla of Dallas film festivals

A news conference was scheduled to take place in Victory Plaza Wednesday morning announcing there will be a new film festival in Dallas making its debut next spring. But the declaration that the Deep Ellum Film Festival is becoming the AFI Dallas International Film Festival is already old news. Not only was it the worst-kept secret in the Dallas film community, where longtime participants in other festivals have been holding fretful discussions for months, but it's been all over the news for several days.

To locals, the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute is perhaps best known for two things: its Lifetime Achievement Award specials given to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, and its "Top 100" movie lists accompanied by televised clip reels. Yet it also is an organization to which many of Hollywood's most powerful and connected belong; it operates a conservatory that has produced the likes of filmmakers David Lynch and Terrence Malick; and it puts on its own film festival, AFI Fest, that takes place in L.A. in November.

That's why key participants involved in bringing AFI to Dallas have been trying to keep this story under wraps for months: Not only was AFI high-profile but also high-priced, to the tune of $3.5 million needed for an annual budget, in addition to almost a million more in licensing fees. The last thing organizers wanted was the attention, not only from the media but also other festival operators who did find out about the wooing of AFI and began voicing their objections in private and later in public. The word "carpetbaggers" was bandied about as at least one film-fest director began telling local film publicists that AFI Dallas would never get past the press conference stage.

That seems highly unlikely. Michael Cain, who founded the Deep Ellum Film Festival five years ago, has drafted an estimable lineup of powerful people with thick wallets. Cain, who instigated AFI's move to Dallas more than a year ago and will remain as its artistic director and chief executive, now has a board of directors that includes Ross Perot Jr., Todd Wagner, outgoing AFI Chief Executive Officer Jean Picker Firstenberg, Ray Nasher and filmmaker L.M. "Kit" Carson.

"Everyone wanted to make it clear AFI wasn't just picking Dallas" for a new festival, Cain says. "AFI was aware no one wants this to appear as though AFI is showing Dallas how to do a fest. What works in L.A. doesn't work in Dallas."

Perot's Hillwood Development Corp., which built Victory Plaza, kicked in more than $800,000 that will go to AFI over the next three years in consulting, trademark and cross-promotional fees. And AFI Dallas will now have its offices in Victory Plaza, with some eight to 10 full-time staffers.

So what, precisely, does this mean? Well, in short, come March 22, there will be some 150 feature films screening over a 10-day period throughout Dallas' art houses and googolplexes, as well as at the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, SMU and other venues. There will be above-the-title celebrities attending AFI Dallas, which will fly them in and put them up at the W Hotel in Victory Plaza. And there will be speakers and panels and parties and all the other attendant hoopla that comes with a film festival.

The festival will be run by Cain, who says the other full-time staffers will consist of people who have worked at other film festivals, including Sundance and CineVegas, as well as people who have worked on AFI Fest in Los Angeles.

"But no one employed by AFI will be working on AFI Dallas," Cain says. "They're an arm's-length consultant, giving us guidance."

Initially, Cain had no intention of bringing the AFI to Dallas. He says he was merely talking to some local film folks about starting a film school in Dallas. Cain talked about it with Todd Wagner, who, with business partner Mark Cuban, makes movies with the likes of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. Wagner suggested he talk to Liener Temerlin, chairman emeritus of the Temerlin McClain ad agency. It was Temerlin who actually created AFI's "Top 100" lists.

Early last year, Cain went to Temerlin's office to pitch the idea of a Dallas film school. Temerlin, who's been on the boards of the Dallas Museum of Art and SMU's Board of Trustees, said no. No way.

He told Cain, "It'll cost much money, take too much time, and I am not sure we could pull it off.

"But as Michael was walking out the door, I said, 'I tell you what I would be interested in,'" Temerlin says. And that's when he pitched the idea of getting AFI to license its name for an international film festival.

Temerlin was hot for AFI for one very good reason: He sits on the AFI's Trustees Council. Between his Hollywood connections and local business ties he would make it work. So he set out to find out what he could about Cain ("a 24-karat guy, bright as hell," he says now) and hit up his pals for money. Perot kicked in his 800 thou, Target came on, as did AT&T, American Airlines, Lexus, Neiman Marcus, Aquafina, Central Market, the W Hotel, Brinker International and a host of other sponsors.

"What's significant is if we can get Dallas to be known as the city of film festivals, it'll be great for the city," Temerlin says. "Dallas had been good to me and a hell of a lot of other people, and it will be good to be in the first tier of film festival cities."

A filmmaker himself, with the acclaimed Sundance-debuted documentary TV Junkieon his filmography, Cain has long been eager to transform the Deep Ellum Film Festival from a local event to something more regional or even national, à la the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. He takes great pains to insist the newly engorged festival isn't trying to encroach upon the USA Film Festival or Dallas Video Festival's ground--even though AFI will take place in March, shortly before USA's April shindig.

"We want to work with allthe festivals," Cain says. "It doesn't mean they have to want to work with us. But if one goes out of business because we started this event, we've failed. That's not what we're looking to do."

But it wasn't hard to notice that the AFI Dallas' news conference was scheduled for the very same day the Spanish-language Vistas Film Festival kicks off at the Dallas Museum of Art. Yet Vistas founder J. Frank Hernandez says he has no problem with it--and not only because Cain and AFI circumvented any hard feelings by asking Vistas to take part in the news conference.

"I think what I thought from the beginning, when this first started making the rounds in the film community," Hernandez says. "Anything that will increase the size of film in Dallas is a good thing. A rising tide lifts all boats."

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