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By DAN TURNER

Staff Reporter

It's not Cannes. Heck, it's not even Toronto. But this month's Los Angeles Independent Film Festival is rapidly gaining respect in the movie business after only three years in existence.

In what has been frequently touted in the entertainment media as the "Year of the Independents" because of the success of non-studio films at the Academy Awards and the box office, film festivals in general are getting a higher profile.

Movie distributors are anxious to find the next "The Mariachi" or "Sex, Lies and Videotape," and the place to do it is the annual circuit of major festivals.

Hundreds of such events are held around the nation and the world, but only a handful are able to command the respect and attendance of important film buyers. And the Los Angeles festival seems to be making its way into that elite group.

"I think this festival is going to take its place right after Toronto and Sundance as one of the premiere North American festivals," said Jonathan Dana, who represents the sellers of independent films in transactions with buyers and sold the film "The Spitfire Grill" for $10 million at last year's Sundance Film Festival. "L.A. has been hungry for a good festival for many years, and I think they've got one."

The Independent Film Festival, which was scheduled to run April 3 through 7 at Raleigh Studios and Paramount Studios in Hollywood, was expected to attract 10,000 people this year mostly a mix of professional film buyers and the general film-going public.

The festival was planning to screen 23 feature-length films, 16 of them being world premieres.

Film festivals are an opportunity for independent filmmakers usually operating on extremely low budgets ranging from the six figures to around $3 million to debut their films before an audience with film buyers present. The major buyers include many studio-owned distribution companies that specialize in low-budget, independent films, such as Miramax Films (owned by Walt Disney Co.), Fox Searchlight (owned by News Corp.) and Sony Pictures Classics (owned by Sony Corp.).

In the first two years of the Los Angeles Festival, nine movies were sold at the event; hardly a stellar record, but considering that the vast majority of film festivals produce no sales at all, festival founder and director Robert Faust isn't complaining.

"I think in three years we've made an incredible mark in the industry," said Faust, a former executive with MTV and Columbia Pictures Television who created the festival in 1995 with the help of the non-profit Filmmakers Foundation.

At this year's event, the festival opener, "Little City," was purchased by Miramax for a reported $2.8 million. The movie was produced by West Hollywood-based Bandeira Entertainment.

As attendance continues to increase at L.A.'s festival, so does the number of films submitted to its organizers. In 1995, about 300 films were submitted for consideration, Faust said; that number grew to 700 in 1996, and over 1,000 films were submitted for the 1997 festival, he said.

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