Twenty-five years ago, the New Orleans Film Festival was all about showing indie films, art films and foreign films that local film fans wouldn’t get to see otherwise.
The festival’s focus has changed dramatically in the years since. That’s partly because there are so many more opportunities to see films, including video on demand, an array of cable TV movie channels and other film festivals.
“Now you can always see something, eventually,” Artistic Director John Desplas said. “So our festival’s emphasis is on the filmmakers showing their new films and new talent being discovered.”
Last year’s opening night film, “12 Years a Slave” —far from being an obscure project destined to be seen by few — went on to widespread critical acclaim and three Academy Awards.
This year’s festival opens with another racially tinged drama that may receive award consideration, “Black and White,” starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer. The festival runs Thursday, Oct. 16, through Oct. 23, with screenings at a dozen venues.
The film’s director, Mike Binder, will attend the event, and a 10-minute excerpt from a documentary about the New Orleans Film Festival will precede the feature attraction.
“Foxcatcher,” a psychological drama featuring an all-star cast including Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo is another of this year’s high-profile screenings.
“The festival has become as big an event for filmmakers as for filmgoers,” Desplas said. “It’s become a destination festival as well as a local festival.”
The New Orleans Film Festival has grown exponentially in the past five years.
It generated a record 22,000 ticket reservations last year. This year, the festival will screen a record 237 films. Submissions in 2014 increased to 2,150 films, 40 percent over 2013.
At the time of the festival’s grassroots start, Desplas said, “it was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to run a film festival?’ Nobody had any idea that film is a business or how to persuade film companies to allow us to show their movies.”
Desplas links the festival’s growth and rising prestige in part to a six-person year-round staff that includes Executive Director Jolene Pinder and Program Director Clint Bowie.
“We’ve got some new, young blood,” he said. “Clint and Jolene, they have been transformative almost.”
“Most of us are new blood,” Bowie said, “but we’re also building on the work of the founders, the people who put the pieces in place before us. Our board is still very much reflective of what the board looked like more than 20 years ago.
“We have the stalwarts of the organization, like John Desplas, Alexa Georges and Mike Adler, people who keep the history and the foundational mission alive.”
The festival’s evolution also parallels the leap in Louisiana film production.
“Hollywood South,” Desplas said, “having these people in town, has created synergy. Participation in festival by people who are working here has grown immensely.”
Despite the unprecedented success of last year’s festival, including the inclusion of “12 Years a Slave” and its director and stars, neither Bowie nor Desplas worries that this year’s events will be overshadowed.
“Last year,” Bowie said, “it felt like a once-in-an-organizational-lifetime kind of thing. It’s rare to have that much talent in a single room. But this year, in the numbers of filmmakers and industry professionals who are attending, it’s even more impressive.”