How the Fest was won

Wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg had a lot of theories about how to make a piece of entertainment that gives audiences their money's worth.

One surefire ingredient was a little scriptwriting gimmick he called "the old 98-yard dash to victory": put a stalwart hero in a horrifically complicated predicament, stack the odds against him, lead the audience to believe that all hope is lost, and then, at the last possible second, turn him loose to save the day.

Against all odds, that's just what happened to the USA Film Festival's young, untried artistic director, 27-year-old Alonso Duralde, who had been living in Los Angeles for the past few years writing articles for The Los Angeles Times syndicate and Movieline magazine.

After the organization ousted the longtime former occupant of that position, Richard Peterson, last summer, the festival's president, John Maloney, okayed the creation of a search committee to find a replacement. An incredibly protracted, nasty, and convoluted internal scandal ensued that ate up several precious fall and winter months that normally would have been spent planning the next year's event. It climaxed with the president disregarding the search committee's choice and installing Duralde--a longtime employee, supporter, and friend of the organization who nonetheless had nowhere near the practical experience of the search committee's original choice for the job.

It was one of the worst crises in the USA Film Festival's history. There was ugly and persistent talk of nepotism, skulduggery, and behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvering; everybody associated with the festival had a theory about what went wrong and who was to blame.

But internal dissent and finger-pointing gave way to weary resignation when cooler heads pointed out that whether the president's choice was right or wrong, the Festival was, after all, just four short months away. When Duralde assumed the post in early January, he had to program the Festival virtually from scratch, gathering together big films, small films, special programs, and celebrity guests. To make matters even more stressful, this year marked the USA Film Festival's Silver Anniversary.

Duralde, who was given a contract that lasted only through festival week, was effectively on probation. He had to deliver a first-rate event in 16 weeks flat or face returning to Los Angeles a defeated man, the scapegoat for forces much vaster and more confused than anyone around him could fathom. "If he does a great job," Maloney told the Observer, "I hope he stays here the rest of his life. If not, I'm gonna mail him back to L.A. in a box."

No boxes for Duralde. Virtually every detail of the Silver Anniversary schedule, from programming choices to celebrity guests, is dead-on perfect. Things that went wrong in past years mysteriously went right. "I was pretty much given carte blanche," says Duralde, who admits to feeling a little frazzled after four months of sleeplessness, phone tag, paperwork, and heedless rushing about. "The people here have faith in me and have been very supportive. But even considering all that, it's still fairly amazing to me that everything worked out as well as it did."

He's being way too modest: This year's festival is simply terrific--about as close to representing all things to all moviegoers as anyone could have wished.

For starters, there's a refreshing and right-minded concentration on movies from Texas and the Southwest, which indicates that for this year, at least, the organization isn't interested in riding on the coattails of Utah's agenda-setting Sundance Film Festival. (Although a few features that played there have showed up in Dallas, they seem to have been programmed because they matched up with Duralde's personal tastes rather than to satisfy a lingering wannabe mentality.)

Even more welcome is the presence of five features made in and around Dallas: Among the Dead, Cyberstalker, Relatively Speaking, Kontum Diary, and Stealin' Home. "Taken together," says Duralde, "these films shatter some of the myths about what regional filmmaking is, or can be."

This last point is particularly crucial considering the astonishing growth of independent filmmaking in the Dallas-Fort Worth area last year, during which some two dozen features of varying budgets either began or ended production. One of the persistent complaints by some USA Film Festival critics (particularly myself) was that the organization was so obsessed with measuring itself by the standards of Sundance or Hollywood that it was willfully ignoring the splendors of its own backyard. Judging from this year's lineup, that's no longer the case. Next year should be even better.

There are plenty of other aspects of this year's festival worth praising, from the cultural and ethnic diversity apparent in the scheduling (including a heavy concentration of gay, lesbian, African-American, Latino, and Asian-themed films); to the presence of a terrific assortment of low-budget documentaries and short subjects; to Duralde's determination to re-invest the USA Film Festival with a lighthearted sense of humor, evident in the Joe Bob Briggs midnight series, hosted by the drawling schlock maven himself, and a special panel discussion entitled "Bad Movies We Love."

"I really wanted for this year's festival to be entertaining," says Duralde. "I wanted it to celebrate the wonders of cinema in its many forms, including bad movies. After all, guilty pleasures are still pleasures."

And last, but certainly not least, is the decision to give the Great Director award to critic, scholar, screenwriter, and filmmaker Paul Schrader, a man whose awesome talent, dedication, and persistence of vision simultaneously offer an inspiration to young filmmakers everywhere and intriguingly mirrors the last quarter-century's worth of cutting-edge American movies. The choice is so audacious and so utterly right that it almost feels like a joyously defiant answer to some sort of warped 25th anniversary playground challenge. You want an event with a sense of history? Okay--let's honor someone who's not only lived it, but made it.

"Bringing Schrader seemed like the logical thing to do, for a couple of reasons," says Duralde. "First, because when the festival started out 25 years ago, he sat on a critics' panel. And also, there was this big question I had to ask myself: what filmmaker in the last quarter of a century has done a lot of really good work during that period and has typified some of the big changes that were going on in American cinema? The answer was Schrader."

Of course, as in any year, it's ultimately up to individual viewers to wade through the schedule and separate the wheat from the chaff. But it's certainly revealing of the quality of this year's lineup that when my colleagues and I went back over our collected capsule reviews and tried to decide what to mark as "Recommended," our work was cut out for us. There are very few outright duds in evidence; even some of the most conspicuous failures are interesting enough on some level to at least merit a look. And the good films on the schedule are very, very good--of such distinctively high quality that they underline just how valid Duralde's parting words really are.

"I guess I don't really have any grand, overview kind of statement to make about what this year's festival is all about," he says. "I think the schedule more or less speaks for itself.

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Matt Zoller Seitz