FORT WORTH For Alec Jhangiani, this just may be the year of the great leap forward.
As the director of Fort Worth's Lone Star Film Festival, Jhangiani says he believes the sixth edition of the annual event -- starting Wednesday and running through Nov. 11 at the AMC Palace -- will shove it from the periphery to the front of area filmgoers' minds. He thinks he finally has the right mix of big-star vehicles and indie fare, as well as a clear mission and appropriate staff, that organizers have been aiming for since the first fest in 2007.
"I do think there's going to be a sea change in how people perceive the festival," he says from his office south of downtown.
Part of that will come from the programming, he says, overseen this year by Kelly Williams, who was program director at the Austin Film Festival from 2004 to 2011.
After showcasing a couple of films last year, like The Artist and The Descendants, that went on to become Oscar winners, Jhangiani hopes to continue that tradition this year with the likes of Silver Linings Playbook, a comedic/romantic drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, Hyde Park on Hudson, with Bill Murray as FDR, and the Dustin Hoffman-directed drama Quartet starring Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly and Tom Courtenay.
The opening-night film is the Billy Bob Thornton-directed Jayne Mansfield's Car, starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon and John Hurt. Thornton and Duvall will be flying in to appear at the Fort Worth screening. John Hawkes (who's generating Oscar buzz for his role in The Sessions) will also be at the festival discussing his career in an event called "A Conversation With John Hawkes."
Other pieces of the puzzle are getting things running smoothly and getting the word out. To that end, LSFF has hired Alex Mena as operations director (he performs a similar function for the Dallas International Film Festival) and publicist Kristin Kelly, whose clients have included Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Match.com, and Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's 2929 Entertainment. And, for the first time, there will be TV and radio ads.
The changes also include some departures: Dennis Bishop, who oversaw the festival from 2008 until 2010 and was a senior adviser last year, is no longer involved. (However, he is featured in one of the "Conversation With" programs and will receive the Commitment to Texas Award for his advocacy of Texas filmmaking.)
Last year's festival drew just under 10,000 and Jhangiani said he hopes to break that barrier this year. By contrast, the very first festival attracted around 5,000.
"It's a layer thing," Jhangiani says. "People hear about us on Facebook, see it in the Star-Telegram or on TV and hear about it from a friend, and it becomes a real thing."
A good mix
Most importantly, Jhangiani feels everyone involved knows what the festival's mission is now.
"After last year, we realized it's a collection of award-season films that are going to be big -- either at the Oscars or others awards like the Spirits. That's primarily of regional interest, as they've played in other parts of the country, but it's the first time we get to see them here," he says. "The other part is, and that's embodied in our competition section, is first-time filmmakers. We instituted a conference last year and it's evolving into a year-round education and networking program. We hope that will give us more of a national profile because we think it's a unique program."
Another distinctive aspect of the festival is the yearly celebration of the region's musical heritage and its ties to film. LSFF's Stephen Bruton Award will be given to singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver this year (see our Shaver interview on Page 13). The Apostle, the Robert Duvall-directed drama featuring Shaver as an actor, is also being shown.
A new element this year is ReScreen, the showing of older films that were either ignored or derided when they came out but that organizers think merit a second look. These include the 216-minute director's cut of the 1980 Western Heaven's Gate, the little-seen but critically admired 2006 indie horror film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, the off-kilter 1995 semi-Western Dead Man starring Johnny Depp and the 1987 action film Miami Connection.
Creating a brand
Jhangiani says he keeps local tastes in mind when it comes to booking.
"It seems like there's still a reluctance in terms of discovering something brand new," he says. "People are more drawn to something that has buzz around it. ... But I think we have shown there is an audience for any kind of film. [The NC-17] Shame from last year is a good example of that. We did little promotion for that film, and it totally sold out. And the Russian films we screened earlier this year [separate from the festival] were well attended.
"If you can attach a brand to it -- it's a Sundance film -- then it has credibility," he continues. "One of our goals is to have that Lone Star brand for Fort Worth. If it has no other brand and Lone Star is putting it on the program, it's worth checking out."
Making an impression on North Texas moviegoers is one thing, but Jhangiani has to think about what the power brokers in Hollywood think as well. That's one reason why he travels to other film festivals as well as to L.A. regularly.
"Our relationship with distributors is getting stronger. They have more trust in the festival, that their films are going to be taken care of," he says. "The other thing we're constantly communicating to distributors is that Fort Worth audiences won't drive to Dallas just to go to the movies [after the films open commercially]. But if they have heard about a film, they will make the trip to see that film. A good word-of-mouth screening in Fort Worth could motivate an audience to make that drive to Dallas."
In fact, he hopes to get more people coming from Dallas to Fort Worth for the festival this year. "I don't know how much we get now but I think we'll start to get a lot more," he says. "This is the first opportunity for people in this area to see a lot of these films."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571