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."
Dallas International Film Festival
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."
By bigger, he means: In the closing days of the fest, screenings will spread from north to south—taking place not only at the Magnolia and Angelika Film Center in the West Village, but also the Angelika's Plano outpost and, for the first time, at the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff and the recently reopened Highland Park Village theater. The fest has also moved its host hotel yet again—this time to The Joule downtown following a one-year stint at the Palomar after three years at the W in Victory Park. Makes sense: Hotel owner and downtown developer Tim Headington is a film producer (The Young Victoria, The Tourist) who has co-sponsored Dallas Film Society events at the hotel in recent months.
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Faust says that the Dallas Film Society's membership is small but growing—around 400 members at present. And last year's inaugural Art of Film fund-raiser at Hall of State, featuring a Q&A and glam dinner with Robert Duvall, was such a success it's returning again in December, with an as-yet-unannounced special guest. But dough's tight, no doubt: Ever since the Deep Ellum Film Festival begat the AFI, Cain—now the chairman of the Dallas Film Society's board—talked about opening a film center here, much like the ones in Denver and Seattle (the latter opens in May, at which point it'll become the home of the Seattle International Film Festival).
"AFI was great, but we always wanted to create something here," Faust says. "That's why the Film Society offers year-round programming. When we were affiliated with the AFI, we couldn't have membership, and now we have 400 members and growing. This is something people want to invest in and be part of. If people go away and want to hone their craft elsewhere, we want them to know they can bring it back because you can be supported here.
"I want to make the Third Coast happen again," he continues, referring to that brief period in the late 1980s and early '90s when Texas was home to a burgeoning film and TV production biz that slowly fizzled with the lack of state-offered incentives. "Dallas is all about consumption. We have some of the best food here. Some of the best art is being made and consumed here too. And I would love to start a capital campaign to house ourselves in the Arts District. Yeah. That's always the ultimate goal. It's about getting the right people and the right money. But that's why I'm a programmer—a curator, not a fundraiser. And I have every bit of faith that the right people on our board will get us there in four, five years."