Entering Its Second Year, AFI Dallas Avoids the Sophomore Slump

When it was revealed in September 2006 that the Deep Ellum Film Festival would be shuttered to make way for the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, and its attendant big-money corporate sponsors, local cineastes fretted that DEFF founder Michael Cain had sold out to the highest bidder. Which proved absolutely right—Target alone was ponying up some $3 million—and also completely beside the point, as it took all of one year for AFI Dallas to prove itself a significant player on the film-festival circuit.

Gone were the smoky, low-key parties at the Boyd Hotel in Deep Ellum, and in their stead were glitzy galas—like last year's kick-off wingding at the downtown Neiman Marcus, where the likes of Lauren Bacall, Sydney Pollock and Bill Paxton hobbed and nobbed with well-heeled locals dolled up like Philadelphia Story extras. And though the festival welcomed its share of A-listers and familiar faces, among them Morgan Freeman, David Lynch and Away From Her's writer-director Sarah Polley, it also hosted significant screenings that provided locals with early glimpses of year-end favorites, among them King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, La Vie en Rose and Hot Fuzz. Just like that, the skepticism was cashed: Turns out you can work plenty of magic with a few million dollars spread around a town that loves to swaddle itself in red carpet.

So it's little surprise that this year's fest, which kicks off this week and runs through April 6, ups the ante, bringing in not only enough famous folk to fill an issue of Entertainment Weekly (Robert De Niro, Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Josh Brolin, Andre Benjamin, Helen Hunt, Sam Rockwell, Michelle Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Diego Luna, recent best-documentary Oscar-winner Alex Gibney and Bill Paxton), but also some 260 features and short films. And they range from major-studio sneaks (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to fest-circuit familiars (Battle in Seattle, Then She Found Me, The Black List, Goliath) to globe-spanning offerings (including Sergei Bodrov's Russian-Mongolian-Kazakh-financed Mongol, about the early years of Genghis Khan) to more than a dozen entries in the high-school short-film competition. Because, apparently, children are the future.

We're no Snow Angels: Kate Beckinsale and Nicky Katt in David Gordon Green's latest moody offering
We're no Snow Angels: Kate Beckinsale and Nicky Katt in David Gordon Green's latest moody offering
Charlize Theron tries to survive the Battle in Seattle.
Charlize Theron tries to survive the Battle in Seattle.

"Last year's success raised the pressure on us," says Cain, CEO and artistic director of AFI Dallas. "It's like a second album or a second movie. You think, 'This is the one that'll define me,' because the sophomore slump is always a concern. We were pretty happy with last year, but we wanted to raise the bar, so the quality moves up. With 35 countries being represented this year, we're bringing in filmmakers from all around the world—and that was just as important as Charlize Theron or Robert De Niro coming to town. Those are home runs. You know you'll get people to pack those rooms, but it's a challenge making sure the smaller films get their due too."

In truth, AFI Dallas might be a little too big: The just-concluded South by Southwest film fest in Austin, birthed 14 years ago as an offshoot of its big-sister music fest, offered 110 features and 100 shorts—with most screening over a five-day period. And the Sundance Film Festival, the premiere acquisitions festival in the world, screened only 122 features. (That said, the mammoth Oscar-season-greeting Toronto International Film Festival last September ponied up 349 films from some 55 countries.)

AFI Dallas, for such a young festival, is a sprawling affair, to put it mildly: Screenings will take place at the Magnolia Theatre, the AMC NorthPark and the Inwood Theatre, as well as at the Dallas Museum of Art, SMU's Hughes Trigg Theatre and the Majestic downtown. Which doesn't even take into account the filmmaker panels at the Nasher Sculpture Center and on the W Hotel's poolside deck.

In that regard, AFI Dallas is very much a Dallas event: It's well-financed, has powerful folks behind it (including ad man Liener Temerlin and Todd Wagner) and needs a car to get around. And filmmakers, as well as all-fest pass-holders, will meet and mingle in the Target-sponsored lounge in Victory Plaza—the only such happy-hour gathering place at any major festival in the U.S.

"The festival's intended to be a celebration of film, more in line with what the AFI's mission is as a whole," Cain says. "I'd be wrong to say I hope films don't sell out of here, but that's not how we present it to filmmakers. We tell them, 'We'll spoil you, and the audience in Dallas will spoil you.' Part of the experience for them is how they're treated."

With such an expansive roster, there's no easy way to sum up the schedule—which is not without its significant points of intrigue. Chief among them: the Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner-produced What Just Happened?, director Barry Levinson's adaptation of producer Art Linson's giddy, grizzly 2003 book in which the Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Untouchables and Fight Club producer recounted the horrors of working in the movie business. What Just Happened? bowed in January at Sundance, where it received a ruthlessly cold Utah reception—in fact, the film, which stars not only De Niro but also Bruce Willis and Sean Penn and Catherine Keener, remains unsold to distributors. But Cain says the version screening here is a different cut than the Sundance version—so, for that matter, is former Dallasite David Gordon Green's moody, transitional adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel Snow Angels, a Sundance entry in 2007.

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