A downtown dream realized for Little Rock Film Festival 

Screens straddle the river.

click to enlarge "Pussy Riot" film image

The plan, so pie-in-the-sky for so long, is finally coming together: In its seventh year, the Little Rock Film Festival has become a downtown festival. Each of the event's more than 100 films will screen at a venue that's within walking distance of downtown Little Rock or North Little Rock.

Since they co-founded the festival in 2007 with Jamie Moses and Owen Brainard, filmmaking brothers Brent and Craig Renaud have talked longingly about taking over downtown, throwing an event that would expose Little Rock to film culture, and visiting filmmakers to Little Rock culture. The key obstacle has been space. It was hard to imagine anything other than a multi-screen movie theater — like Riverdale 10, which anchored the LRFF for the first six years — accommodating a hundred films. But thanks to a new partnership with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, an expanded relationship with the Argenta Community Theater and some creative uses of non-traditional venues, the new layout will actually accommodate more festivalgoers.

The biggest theater at Riverdale could only accommodate 200 people. The Rep can seat 370 and the Argenta Community Theater can hold 275. Thanks to grants and other fundraising by the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, the non-profit the Renauds co-founded in 2011 to serve as an umbrella organization for all the film festivals in the state and generally promote the film industry, the LRFF has use of projectors and sound equipment to turn nearby non-theater space into screening venues. Walking back and forth between Little Rock and North Little Rock may not be convenient for many, but the schedule is arranged in a way that many of the films will play on each side of the river.

The move downtown wouldn't have happened without the cooperation of The Rep, which will serve as the largest screening venue and house the filmmaker's lounge in the theater's second floor lounge, Foster's. The Renauds and Bob Hupp, artistic producing director of The Rep, first discussed partnering three years ago, but because The Rep books its season a year and a half in advance, the timing wasn't right. Hupp said the new partnership, which he hopes will continue past this year, fits within the theater's mission.

"When Craig expressed an interest in bringing the film festival to downtown Little Rock, we clearly wanted to be a player because we know the film festival is going to bring thousands of people to downtown Little Rock and that will benefit not only The Rep but all of our downtown restaurants and businesses. That's a big part of our mission, to not just help foster the artistic life of the city but also its economic life."

The Renauds said that, while the new layout has been logistically challenging, it's exciting to see their plan realized.

"It's invigorating to be using these new spots," Craig Renaud said. "And cool to see construction on historic buildings nearby. Ever since we made the announcement, people who aren't part of the typical film fest demographic have been giving us really positive feedback."

The shift downtown is only the latest move in the Renauds' quest to build a festival that draws from the best parts of the many film festivals they've traveled to as documentary filmmakers. They started with a strategic date — just after Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca, three festivals that typically insist on world premieres — that puts the LRFF in position to be the second stop for the most successful films on the festival circuit. From the beginning, they also wanted to be known as a filmmaker's festival. So they paid expenses for directors and threw them lavish parties. The more filmmakers come and participate in post-screening Q&As, the more audiences enjoy themselves, they figured. Later, they recognized the festival needed to pay special attention to a niche. The Oxford American made a natural partner for a Southern Film Award. A $10,000 prize made the award a magnet for films (last year, for instance, Oscar nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild" had a pre-release festival run of Sundance, Berlin and the LRFF).

This year, they've added a new focus — socially-conscious fare. Heifer International and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site are co-sponsoring the $10,000 award (the National Historic Site is putting up the cash). The new prize might've helped the LRFF land "Blood Brother," winner of both Grand Jury and Audience awards at Sundance. It's one of three films screening in competition at Heifer for free. After it plays at 2:15 p.m. Friday, Heifer will host a free cocktail reception with music by Cody Belew of "The Voice."

Also new this year: pre-screening musical performances. The Renauds have long wanted music to be a larger part of the festival. After-parties always feature local talent. Now nearly every screening at The Rep will include a brief performance from a local musician. Matt White, co-owner and booker of White Water Tavern, put together the line-up, which includes a wide sampling of some of Little Rock's best acts — Isaac Alexander, Rodney Block, Adam Faucett, Iron Tongue and more.

White also booked the talent for all the after-parties, which promise to be as raucous as ever (free booze and food to passholders helps). On Thursday, Big Silver plays a party that begins at 10 p.m. at White Water (the only festival venue not in walking distance of downtown). Since the festival's split between two downtowns, the Junction Bridge will be a fitting place for a big throwdown beginning 9:30 p.m. Friday. Velvet Kente performs. Afterwards, the Argenta Arts Rooftop will host a party exclusive to gold passholders. Saturday features two parties: A barbecue dinner at the Oxford American's South on Main space with music by Greg Spradlin at 8 p.m. and the "Top of the World Party" at 11 p.m. in the 17th floor of the Bank of America building, which offers panoramic views of the city. The room will be stocked with vintage video games and ping-pong. Sunday brings the annual Arkansas Times Closing Night Awards Gala at the Clinton Presidential Library at 6 p.m., followed by a riverboat cruise on the new Mark Twain Riverboat for filmmakers only and a farewell party at 10:30 p.m. at Crush Wine Bar.

Another key party for the festival: a happy hour on Thursday in the River Market at the site of the Arcade, the mixed use space the Central Arkansas Library System is building with other partners. The LRFF will take up permanent residence in the Arcade, and the building's 325-seat theater will become the festival's flagship theater in 2014. Every year, bigger and better.


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