By Pat Sherman
With fresh energy and leadership at the helm — and a bevvy of A-list events and 50 percent more screenings — San Diego Film Festival (SDFF) organizers are upping the ante for 2012 and beyond.
A primary component of SDFF’s growth strategy is the addition of La Jolla as a venue for several of its top screenings, including “Quartet,” actor Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, and an opening night appearance by legendary filmmaker Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “My Own Private Idaho”), who will be honored with a career retrospective and a screening of his 1997 drama, “Good Will Hunting” (starring Matt Damon, Robin Williams and Ben Affleck).
“La Jolla’s inclusion was really important,” said the festival’s new board president, Kevin Leap, noting that screenings will now be split between the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) in La Jolla and Reading Theater in the Gaslamp, where the festival has been based for years.
“There are a lot of people in North County, La Jolla included, that just won’t go to the Gaslamp,” Leap said. “La Jolla has such a high propensity for supporting the arts that we wanted to make it as easy as possible for La Jollans (to attend).”
This year’s festival, Sept. 26-30, includes 112 films, documentaries and shorts, including 11 world premieres and 16 West Coast premieres — all jury-selected from 1,300 submissions.
Tickets for individual movies are $14 pre-sale and $16 at the door. Passes range from $75 for an entire day of screenings to $500 for a VIP festival pass granting access to all four days of screenings, events, and panels.
Leap said organizers wanted to hold their “most prestigious event,” the Van Sant tribute, in La Jolla.
“He is the embodiment of what an independent filmmaker begins as and can become,” Leap said. “He makes films for the sake of beauty and art. It’s not 10,000 explosions and people flying across the screen; it’s independent film at its highest level.”
A VIP cocktail reception with Van Sant will be at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27 at MCASD, followed by a 30-minute film retrospective and “Good Will Hunting” at 7 p.m. in Sherwood Auditorium. Tickets to the cocktail reception are $125, or admission is free with purchase of a VIP pass.
Leap said festival organizers envision the SDFF evolving into “Toronto West.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (held this year Sept. 6-16) draws about 200,000 attendees — numbers Leap feels SDFF could eventually achieve, given the city’s proximity to Hollywood, as well as its plethora of hotels, restaurants and attractions.
The SDFF board consulted Sundance Film Festival organizers, as well as those with festivals in Toronto, Tribeca, Napa, Aspen, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara to gain insight on growing SDFF from last year’s attendance of 8,000 to an internationally acclaimed festival drawing 100,000 film lovers.
Leap said the SDFF board is anticipating 25,000 attendees this year.
“Palm Springs does 120,000 people and Santa Barbara does 80,000. There’s no reason that we can’t do at least that,” he said.
More La Jolla film screenings
Another La Jolla highlight is Dustin Hoffman’s “Quartet,” 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 in Sherwood Auditorium. The film, which received rave reviews earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, chronicles the residents of a home for retired opera singers.
Though Hoffman will be in Spain during the festival, his son, Jake Hoffman, also makes his directorial debut at SDFF, with the short film “Please, Alfonso.” It screens 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at Reading Theater.
“His film was spot-on, just wonderful and charming,” said Del Mar-based filmmaker and SDFF board Vice-president Tonya Mantooth. “It was one of the standouts for me.”
Another film that rose to the top for Mantooth was the thriller “Red Line.” Directed by former San Diegan Robert Kirbyson, it follows a group of Los Angeles subway passengers in the wake of a subterranean bomb attack.
“He filmed it in San Diego and used San Diego crews,” Mantooth said. “It has fabulous production values. … This truly is an independent filmmaker who worked on an obviously tight budget and really brought a lot to the screen.” “Red Line” screens 6 p.m. Sept. 29 in San Diego and at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 30 in La Jolla.
Close to 100 film aficionados and a final jury of industry professionals viewed submissions from 57 countries, including Turkey, Brazil, Japan and Palestine.
“We had some great foreign films,” Mantooth said. “That was probably one of the toughest categories to pare down, but we have wonderful international representation.”
Though submissions had to be produced in 2011, a few exceptions were made for films with particular gravitas, Mantooth said, including 2009’s “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler,” starring Academy Award-winning actress Anna Paquin (“The Piano,” “True Blood”). The historical drama tells the story of a Polish woman who helped smuggle as many as 2,500 Jewish children out of a Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust. It screens 4 p.m. Sept. 29 in La Jolla.
“The filmmaker’s going to be here and in the next day or so we’ll find out if Anna Paquin’s schedule will allow her to attend,” Mantooth said. “She’s also in a film short playing down in the Gaslamp, so she’s very eager to attend.”
Another film, which screened at this year’s San Diego Latino Film Festival, is the documentary, “Reportero,” which explores the issue of Mexican journalists being targeted for murder by drug cartels. The film, showing Sept. 28, 8:30 p.m. in the Gaslamp, sold out during this year’s Latino film fest.
“We’re partnering with them to bring it back,” Mantooth said. “It was a really impactful documentary and, frankly, I felt like everybody needed to see it.”
Of the many panels and workshops offered this year is “Connect,” which introduces budding high school auteurs to top film industry professionals for a day of workshops and networking. Each year, 250 of the most promising and enthusiastic film students are handpicked to participate.
This year the young actors from the hit TV show “Modern Family” will participate in the panel.
“They’re so at the top of the celebrity list right now,” Leap said. “We’re just excited to have them.”
“Fame High,” which screens 2 p.m. Sept. 29 in La Jolla, is the follow-up to Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, “The Garden.”
“It chronicles a group of high school students who are really going down that path to being musicians, dancers and actors — the highs and the lows of it,” Mantooth said. “It’s a really wonderful glimpse into their lives and their struggles and successes.”
The film will be accompanied by a mini master class on the art of storytelling, led by Kennedy.
“He’s so passionate about helping kids move forward in their careers,” she said. “We’re really wanting to reach out to the performing arts students here in La Jolla and San Diego to be exposed to that.”