Dallas International Film Festival: A Star-Lite Celebration Goes a Little Smaller.

Last year, the question most often asked of Dallas International Film Festival artistic director James Faust was, "What's this year's The Hurt Locker?"—a reference, of course, to Kathryn Bigalow's wrenching Iraq bomb-squad nail-biter that had one of its earliest screenings at the 2009 fest then called the AFI Dallas International. Nowadays he is asked: "What's this year's Winter's Bone?" Faust interprets such queries thusly: "What's the movie that's going to slam us against the wall? What's the film that's going to punch us in the face?" He laughs.

"They want to know: What's the next new thing?"

A quick glance at the schedule for this year's Dallas International Film Festival reveals there is no sure thing amongst its offerings—save, perhaps, for such big-screen battle-tested titles as Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (a warm-and-snuggly inside-the-Muppet doc) and Miranda July's dizzying cat-adoption dramedy The Future (a Sundance premiere) and Beautiful Boy, a Toronto pick-up starring The Queen's Michael Sheen and former E.R. doctor Maria Bello as parents of a college-campus shooter. Faust would also direct your attention to Small Town Murder Songs, which he likes to describe as "Fargo even further north, in Canada" as one of those films "that'll punch you in the face."

Maria Bello and Michael Sheen in Beautiful Boy
Maria Bello and Michael Sheen in Beautiful Boy

But he knows what you're thinking—that this year's schedule isn't larded with many easy picks full of bold-faced names, and that this year's red carpet won't be the parade of celebrities who've populated fests past. Dennis Quaid will be here for Soul Surfer, a faith-based true-lifer about surfer Bethany Hamilton's overcoming the loss of her left arm following a shark attack. And Ann-Margret will attend the opening night gala Thursday at the Winspear Opera House, where she will pick up her Dallas Star Award in advance of a Friday-night screening of Lucky, a comedy starring ex-Good Guy Colin Hanks as a serial killer who inherits a winning lottery ticket from one victim. But that's about it.

Faust says if the lack of celeb-power wasn't initially a conscious decision amongst himself and his fellow programmers, it became a sort of manifesto as the selection committee began scrawling titles on the white board that hangs in the fest's offices.

"I think last year we were a little star-heavy, and this year we went to a place where the celebrities and stars are the filmmakers," he says. "At Sundance, the whole competition was loaded with celebrities, and I was like, 'Whoa, so this is what it takes?' I love those guys. But this year we went through the films available to us, and we realized early on that it was about the story. Not that we were trying to go non-celebrity, but the best entries are the ones in which the filmmakers are the stars. And I'm not saying it was a conscious decision, but I guess in a way it was. We want to support new artists. With our stuff you can see the next ingenue who's going to kick your face in. You walk into a film like Boy Wonder, and you'll find a new actor to fall in love with.

"And maybe it is more demanding, in a way. You're asking the audience to take it on faith, to trust us. Going into our fifth year, we're hoping people keep coming back—and ticket sales so far are good—because they know we're bringing the good stuff. I don't wanna put stuff out there that'll embarrass us."

There is, of course, the question of economics: Last year the former AFI rechristened itself as the DIFF, an offshoot of the Dallas Film Society, following co-founder Michael Cain and the board's decision to let the three-year, close-to-seven-figure licensing agreement with American Film Institute lapse. Target, which still funds filmmaker awards in Dallas, also dropped out as the title sponsor in '09 and was replaced by NorthPark Center; this year, Cadillac's the presented-by.

The fest has had to get creative with its financing this year: It debuted something called the "Miles For Film" program, wherein people were asked to donate their frequent-flier miles to the fest so they could bring in filmmakers. Those who took the deal were given opening-night ducats and other private-screening privileges. On Monday, Melina McKinnon, wife of Michael Cain, emailed to supporters a request that they buy at least one $100 raffle ticket for a shot at a new Cadillac. Wrote McKinnon, "Given the tough economics of the past several years the Film Festival is DESPERATELY in need of a cash infusion." [McKinnon called Wednesday to clarify that the email was sent only to friends and supporters of the festival, and that her wording was intended to stress the importance of the raffle, which presents "a tremendous opportunity for the festival to raise money."]

Faust says, sure, times are tough, insisting that even the high-profile Toronto International Film Festival—the fall kickoff to Hollywood's Oscar-campaigning season—had "a little problem with finishing funds." As a result, says Faust, "You just had to be a little smarter, which is why this year, we're bigger in some ways but also smaller."

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Jack Palance
Jack Palance

I love how all the local 'E-list' actors show up on the red carpet with their films that never really do much..but hey, they might get to see someone who is famous!....which they brought in from somewhere else.


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