Film and TV

AFI Can't Believe It's Not Deep Ellum

Deep Ellum Film Festival founder Michael Cain, with Jane Seymour, is merging his baby with the American Film Institute. It's a big deal--and a bad deal, say some folks who probably wish they'd thought of it first.

For months now, it's been the worst-kept secret in the Dallas film community: The Deep Ellum Film Festival in 2007 would become the AFI Dallas International Film Festival, so named for the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute responsible most famously for its Top 100 lists. Well, I just got back from the Toronto International Film Festival and saw, hey, KTVT-Channel 11 had a story on it last night--without comment from anyone actually associated with the festival, only some comments from a couple of unhapppy campers and an early draft of an agreement between DEFF and AFI that, according to DEFF folks, is way out of date.

The Channel 11 story is, for the most part, right. But there were some essential bits of information left out--such as, how AFI got involved in the first place, when the event will take place, precisely who's involved and what it's going to cost. One thing Jay Gormley (who has had two short films in the Deep Ellum Film Festival) got very right is the unhappiness this is causing among other local film festival organizers, who have been meeting for months figuring out how to deal with--or combat, if necessary--AFI's involvement in Dallas. I do believe the word "carpetbagger" has been thrown around, in no small part because the DEFF (and major sponsors, among them Ross Perot Jr.'s Hillwood Development Corporation and Target) will be paying AFI some $800,000-plus over the next three years in consulting, trademark and cross-promotional fees. Organizers at the USA Film Festival and Dallas Video Festival look at that number--and a budget for AFI Dallas that will run upwards of $3 million, not the $2.4 mentioned by Channel 11--and figure, hey, that's cheating.

Michael Cain, who founded DEFF and has been working on this deal with AFI since June 2005, insists the newly engorged festival isn't trying to encroach upon the USA Film Festival's ground--even though AFI will take place in March, shortly before USA's April shindig. He says, "We want to work with all the festivals. 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."

Cain is hesitant to go into too much detail about the new festival. There's a press conference scheduled September 20 at 10 a.m. in Victory Plaza, which is where many of the new festival's seminars, panels and parties will take place. It's also the new location of the AFI Dallas offices, which will house eight to 10 full-time staffers in charge not only of the 10-day festival, but also other events scheduled to take place throughout the year (hence, the need for a multimillion-dollar budget, which is still smaller than the money needed to run such mammoth endeavors as the Toronto, Sundance and even South by Southwest film festivals).

Of course, one can't help but notice the press conference is scheduled the same day the Spanish-language Vistas Film Festival kicks off at the Dallas Museum of Art before moving to the Angelika Film Center in Mockingbird Station. But Vistas founder J. Frank Hernandez says he has no problem with it--and not only because Cain and AFI have asked Vistas to take part in the press conference next Wednesday.

"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. One thing Dallas has failed at is promoting the film festivals and film community outside of Dallas. If this festival, because of the size and money and people involved, can increase the exposure for the film industry in Dallas, it has to help all the fests." (Of course, one also wonders how this will affect SXSW, which also takes place in early March: Will the two fests fight for premieres, for instance? Cain's pals with SXSW's director Matt Dentler, who screened Cain's acclaimed Sundance-debuted doc TV Junkie this year, so one assumes they'll be able to work together. Then again, business is business.)

Initially, Cain had no intention of bringing the AFI to Dallas. He was merely talking to some local film folks about starting a film school in Dallas, when Liener Temerlin--chairman emeritus of the Temerlin McClain ad agency--stepped in and said bringing AFI to Dallas might be an even better idea. Temerlin, who's been on the boards of the Dallas Museum of Art and SMU's Board of Trustees, also sits on the AFI's Trustees Council, with the likes of Charlton Heston and longtime Steven Spielberg associates Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Needless to say, the man has contacts--among them Ross Perot Jr., whose Hillwood not only kicked in more than $800,000 but is also providing the "filmmaker hub" at Victory Park and the W Hotel, among other properties around the area.

"Everyone wanted to make it clear AFI wasn't just picking Dallas" for a new festival, Cain says. "It was more a matter of a group of people getting together to create a larger festival. 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. It has to be at its heart a Dallas film festival."

Needless to say, there will not be a Deep Ellum Film Festival this year. At most there will be some scaled-down version--maybe a couple of screenings downtown as a sort of going-away party. There are still more details to reveal; they'll be in next week's paper. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky