Indies//dt1st/mark2nd

By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

Cannes is a world media circus and Sundance is just getting too big. So where does the independent filmmaker go looking to sell his creation?

Perhaps in L.A. this week, at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival one of the top gathering spots for marketing the truly independent film.

"There is a general consensus in the independent world that Sundance has been co-opted by the major studios," said director George Hickenlooper, whose political drama "The Big Brass Ring" starring William Hurt will close the festival on April 20. "LAIFF is rapidly filling the vacuum of being a film festival for innovative, exciting work."

Launched in 1995 with 33 films, the Los Angeles festival was the brainchild of Robert Faust, who began his career at MTV before becoming involved in the annual Independent Spirit Awards, the so-called Oscars of the non-studio world.

Faust, who is the festival's director, admits that colleagues thought he was crazy to start a film festival in jaded Los Angeles. He persisted in his belief that independents needed a place to be seen in Hollywood.

"It was tough," Faust said. "People kept telling me that no one would be interested. But I felt if we had good, quality films, people will come."

Last year, 21,000 showed up. This year, Faust estimates there will be 25,000 attending the six-day event, which begins on April 15.

Faust has gathered a powerful group of sponsors to help bankroll his event, including the Sundance Channel, Kodak, the Directors Guild of America, Chevrolet, Apple Computer and Absolut vodka.

"Every year, (organizers of the L.A. festival) identify a body of films that are off or below the radar," said Tony Safford, senior vice president of acquisitions at Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. "They have carved out a place for themselves in the international world of festivals."

The festival's clout is being helped by the changing state of independent filmmaking. Many of the large independent distribution companies, such as Miramax Films, have been taken over by the major studios (Miramax is now owned by Walt Disney Co.). Instead of buying independent films, these companies are now making movies themselves.

As the number of major distributors shrinks, it becomes more important to filmmakers and smaller distribution companies to have their own major festival.

"Hollywood is a company town controlled by the studios," said Bob Laemmle, the owner of Laemmle Theaters. "This festival focuses some attention on what is happening outside the system. There is something about having it here that makes it important."

Getting a film into the L.A. festival isn't easy. Thomas Ethan Harris, who is in charge of reviewing the entrants, said struggling filmmakers will use every tactic in the book to get his attention. His favorite gift so far this year was a batch of coffee, NoDoz and a vial of Clear Eyes from a filmmaker.

"They knew I was seeing 20 films a day and this would keep me awake," said Harris, amused. But he is not amused by other offers. Sex is one of them. So is cash. He says he turns them down.

"It's terrible to see someone that desperate," he said. "But in the independent world, they see a festival like ours as a platform for a commercial career, which I hate. I'd rather see people making films for the independent movement. The sadness of the late '90s is that people can't wait to sell out."

About half of the films screened are likely to find a distributor. But even the films that are not bought get attention. "We are a huge discovery festival," Harris said.

LAIFF will feature more than 100 films, documentaries, shorts and music videos. Among these is "Entropy," a drama starring Stephen Dorff that opens the festival and was directed by Philip Joanou and produced by Robert De Niro. Another is "The Florentine," starring Chris Penn, Michael and Virginia Madsen in a marital drama.

Films during the six-day event will be screened in Hollywood at the Directors Guild Theater, the Harmony Gold Theater and the Laemmle Sunset 5. Faust estimates the festival will generate about $1 million in revenues from ticket fees and sponsors, who pay as much as $150,000 to participate.

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