AFI Dallas: Fancy, But Not Too

AFI Dallas co-founder and artistic director Michael Cain
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Amidst all the small talk beneath the high ceilings of Neiman Marcus' flagship, where the AFI Dallas International Film Festival once more held its well-oiled and mightily lubricated kick-off jam, there was business to discuss first and foremost. As in: First, the bad news. News came down this week, as expected, that Fox's Prison Break would be leaving Dallas next season, the series' fourth. After shooting here for two seasons, it moves to Los Angeles -- taking with it $1.4 million per episode in actual dough spread amongst locals signed on to light, mike, shoot, feed and dress the show re-upped for 22 episodes come fall.

This comes from Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, who stressed last night that Fox was so happy with its experience shooting in Dallas it's considering bringing another series to town -- though what and when is a way's off. But, she stresses, chief among the cheerleaders has been Mayor Tom Leppert, who called Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, "to see if there was anything else Dallas could do for them," Burkland told Unfair Park. "The mayor's been way out front on this. He's to be commended."

Leppert -- as usual wearing a pinstripe suit that made him look "like Mafia," said one visiting filmmaker -- was among the Neimans crowd last night. And it was late-arriving crowd, as a party set to begin at 9:30 p.m. didn't get rolling till closer to 11 p.m. That's because Mickey Rooney, in town to accept an AFI award, rambled on for some 35 minutes on the Majestic stage before the opening-night screening of Helen Hunt's Then She Found Me -- sorry to have missed it, sounds awesome. (Though Rooney did, somehow, manage to find his way to Neimans well before Hunt's screening had ended.) Also in the crowd, Prison Break co-producer Garry Brown, grabbing one last strawberry martini before decamping for L.A.

Funny thing about the shindig, though: Despite the Target-sponsored glitz and the bold-faced names (which is to say, Josh Brolin and Bill Paxton, early arrivals to a fest lasting 10 more days), the AFI looks not so different than its predecessor, the Deep Ellum Film Festival. Almost all of the DEFF's key organizers remain with AFI Dallas, including senior programmer James Faust and, of course, DEFF founder and AFI Dallas co-founder Michael Cain. Another key DEFF figure, filmmaker King Hollis, also remains connected to the AFI.

The AFI Dallas gets going tonight, really, with several key screenings -- among them, Tom McCarthy's The Visitor at the Angelia Film Center at 7:15 p.m. and Alex Gibney's Gonzo at the Magnolia Theatre at 7:30. McCarthy and star Richard Jenkins will be on hand after the screening for a Q&A, which I will moderate; Gibney will also attend his screening.

Gibney, who just pocketed the Oscar for Best Documentary for his Taxi to the Dark Side, was also at Neimans last night -- where, he noted, no other film festival in the country so lavishly greets and treats its filmmaking guests. Indeed, the AFI Dallas does the city proud: It spends every cent of the small fortune Target's bestowed upon the festival, and though it's but two years old the festival already has the feel of a cagey vet standing on sturdy legs.

Whether or not that's actually the case we'll find out in coming days. But on its first night, even amidst the jewelry cases of Neiman Marcus, it felt like a friendly, welcoming how-do -- must have been the barbecue and macaroni and cheese, situated somewhere next to the diamonds. --Robert Wilonsky

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