Pete Hammond

Although the Cannes Film Festival just ended three weeks ago, there’s always another film fest around the corner trying to steal its thunder and become part of the cinematic conversation. On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Film Festival, now in its 17th year, opened with the world premiere of the Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) comedy Bernie, with stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey joining its writer-director in introducing the film at downtown L.A.’s LA Live Regal Cinemas, where the fest moved last year. Not that it’s easy navigating the Los Angeles freeways at rush hour to get downtown, an off-the-beaten track place to premiere your movie, but the unapologetic black comedy and true-life tale of a small-town undertaker who caters to the much-hated Texas town’s matron until he reaches for a gun was worth the herculean effort navigating the annoying traffic jams and $25 parking fee (I didn’t read the signs carefully) just to see this splendid trio of actors deliver terrific performances backed by a great supporting group of locals who won big laughs throughout.

Bernie is an acquistion title and likely will be snapped up immediately by some enterprising distributor even though it’s not an obvious commercial hit. It is Black’s best work in some time. It could develop a following on the indie circuit though, and it certainly had the crowd (which included well-wishers like Linklater friend Steven Soderbergh and wife Jules Asner) buzzing at the crowded after-party on the L.A. Live parking garage rooftop.

Film Independent (which runs the fest as well as the Spirit Awards) board members I spoke to at the premiere are hopeful Bernie could become the fest’s first big breakout acquisition title, and reps from many indie distribs were in attendance. In fact, the fest delayed announcement of its opening film until after the Cannes festival was over because producers did not want to be inundated with calls about acquiring the film during that market and wanted to wait until it could premiere cold in L.A., a big tribute to the growing clout of LAFF.

Last year’s opening nighter was The Kids Are All Right, and although it had first appeared at Sundance, the L.A. fest screening was the first time it was seen in finished form. It got a lot of attention and from there went on to key Golden Globe wins and a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

The fest has lots of intriguing titles lined up until its closing on June 26 with another world preem, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the horror flick written and produced by LAFF’s Guest Director Guillermo Del Toro. Oscar hopefuls rolling out here include Summit’s East L.A.-set A Better Life; the much-talked-about doc Page One: Inside The New York Times; and FilmDistrict’s recent Cannes sensation Drive, which won Best Director for Nicolas Winding Refn, who will be attending the film’s North American premiere Friday night along with star Ryan Gosling. There are also plenty of intriguing titles in the narrative and documentary competitions and lots more for film fans to sift through among the 200 or so items on display out of 5000 submissions.

Oscar host James Franco will be the subject of an evening and debut his challenging directorial effort, the black-and-white doc The Broken Tower. MacLaine and Black will appear for a 90-minute Q&A that will take the form of a game show with questions about their careers. Julie Taymor will try to recover from her Spider-Man debacle by participating in a conversation about her career. The late, great director Sidney Lumet will be remembered in an evening featuring actors and writers he worked with. The list of events goes on and on.

Fest director Rebecca Yeldham, now in her third year at the helm, and Artistic Director (and former Newsweek film critic) David Ansen sat down with Deadline at lunch last week to discuss their ambitious plans for continuing a festival that they say is now inching toward challenging some of the bigger, influential fests like Toronto, Tribeca, South by Southwest and Telluride, even though it is set in the normally jaded confines of L.A. and often has not been wholly embraced by the hometown industry. They maintain it is now being taken much more seriously as a place to see and find film.

Yeldham says proof of that is in the headaches she is encountering this year just trying to accommodate all the agents and distribs who want tickets. But she says that’s a good problem to have. “Life is a nightmare due to all the ticket requests from buyers; there are many calls coming in. But we are not meant to be a market in the end. We play movies we are passionate about,” says Yeldham, even though she confirms they have been “raising the bar aggressively.”

Another key change for the fest this year is the absence of Dawn Hudson, the former Film Independent honcho who really drove this festival to what it is and now is taking over as CEO this month at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. There is a search going on for her replacement, but as far as the fest is concerned, the show must go on.

“Dawn’s leaving was a big shock and emotionally very difficult for me. She is my good friend and I miss her, but nothing has really changed in the day-to-day execution of the festival,” says Yeldham, who also adds she thinks the Hudson hiring is a big win for the Academy.

Ansen, now in his second year, says he doesn’t miss his former day job at Newsweek. “It’s a refreshing change after being a critic for 30 years. There are a lot of movies coming out right now I am happy I don’t have to review,” he says, adding that he and Yeldham have been working on this edition of the fest since December and he has scouted films from Berlin to Sundance to Rotterdam.

As for the controversial downtown location Hudson championed, the pair say it has been welcomed by the community and brings a greater, more diverse audience to the festival than the previous digs, which were spread out over West L.A. Still they know there are westsiders who would rather have a root canal than hit the freeway during peak hours to try and get downtown to see a potential indie sensation.

In her opening remarks before the showing of Bernie, sometimes Malibu resident MacLaine made an amusing point about the location. “I don’t think I have been down here since I had my visa renewed,” she said to much laughter. “But I get the feeling a lot of good independent stuff goes on down here.”

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.