As AFI Dallas Prepares its Debut Tonight, Michael Cain Must Put Art and Life in Focus

Kinky Friedman and Michael Cain in a photo I took two weeks ago, at the Texas Film Hall of Fame dinner in Austin
Kinky Friedman and Michael Cain in a photo I took two weeks ago, at the Texas Film Hall of Fame dinner in Austin

At this very moment, AFI Dallas International Film Festival CEO and artist director Michael Cain is attending a funeral in Euless: His father-in-law, Allan McKinnon, died on Monday after a long battle with cancer. So do not expect Cain's wife --  Melina, as much a force and familiar face on the local film scene as her husband these last 10 years -- to attend the opening-night festivities at NorthPark Center, where a screening of Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom will be bookended by two galas. She will instead be with her family, many of whom were already coming to Dallas for the festival.

"It does put things in perspective," Cain tells Unfair Park. "Allan was really proud that we were able to pull this festival off. And, right now, the most important thing is to celebrate Allan's life -- and, hopefully, we can turn this festival into a further celebration. So many people have had a hard year, and one consistent thing you can count on is film: It takes you somewhere else. I feel lucky to be able to balance the two. I'll be there tonight, and it'll be different. But I'll be there."

Over the course of the festival, Unfair Park will provide the requisite recommendations, highlights and snapshots; a can't-miss list follows later today. But before any of that, Cain -- who, exactly one decade ago, launched the Deep Ellum Film Festival -- offers further thoughts on the fest about to commence.

From jump, the AFI Dallas was a star-spangled success, bringing to town not only the unseen bests from other fests for their regional or even U.S. premieres, but also the likes of Lauren Bacall, Sydney Pollack, Robert DeNiro, Charlize Theron, Bill Paxton, Simon Pegg and other bold-faced names. But in its third go-round, AFI Dallas has exceeded expectations: Programmers James Faust and Sarah Harris have assembled a lineup of nearly 80 features that rivals any festival's schedule. This, despite the fact initial title sponsor Target cut way back (NorthPark has assumed the role) as Lexus was likewise backing up and away.

And, appropriately, ticket sales for this year's festival are way up -- "60 to 70 percent over where we were this time last year," Cain says, a fact he credits to significant national media coverage, extended community outreach programs, an exceptionally strong line-up of films and guests, and a structural shake-up that finds Stephanie Hunt (Ray's daughter-in-law) as the festival's new chairperson and attorney Steve  Stodghill and wife Anne as the fest's co-chairs.

"Anne and Steve rallied a different group of people who may not have known about the festival," Cain says of ticket sales. "But people expect us now and know we're coming. People e-mail us months in advance now: 'When's the schedule coming? When do tickets go on sale?'" As for the quality of this year's line-up, he says: "The American Film Institute saw the value in what Dallas does for the AFI brand and trusts us to take care of that brand. We have peple traveling from all over the world for the fest. The programming has taken us to a different place -- from Hunger to The Cove to Tyson, there's so much for everyone. James and Sarah and this team that put this together have done a phenomenal job. I get the credit, but there's a team of eight year-round staff members responsible for this."

In recent months, Cain says, several folks told him that maybe it wasn't wise to hold a festival this year -- that, perhaps, in this economy it would be more fiscally prudent to hold off for a year. But he refused, and beginning tonight, audiences will begin celebrating that decision.

"When people said, 'In this economy, maybe we shouldn't do this,' we said, 'The city of Dallas deserves this. It's our duty to deliver this,'" he says. "This journey started in 1999, and we weren't about to see it end now."

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