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The Little Rock Film Festival continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

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Is there a faster-growing film festival in the country than the Little Rock Film Festival? In four years, it's built up its audience exponentially, jumping from 3,000 in its opening year to around 25,000 in 2010. This year, more than 100 films will screen with filmmakers (and often actors, producers or documentary subjects) accompanying all but a handful, according to LRFF co-founder Brent Renaud.

From the beginning, Renaud and his other co-founders — his brother Craig Renaud and Jamie Moses and Owen Brainard — have emphasized that it's a filmmaker's festival. The Renauds, who're internationally renowned filmmakers themselves, know the realities of the festival circuit, namely that most festivals don't provide travel or lodging expenses. That the LRFF pays for all visiting filmmakers' flights and hotels sets it apart. Combine that with nightly parties (with free booze for filmmakers), and it's not difficult to see how the LRFF is scoring so many films that have only screened once before at major festivals like Sundance and SXSW.

"We consider our festival a collaboration with filmmakers," Brent Renaud said recently.

After trying out a number of mottos in its early years, the festival landed on "an international festival with the Southern experience" last year. It's been shortened this year to something that can fit on a T-shirt — "Head South." But the "international" part of the programming formula remains intact and thrillingly diverse, with films hailing from Iran to Indonesia.

"The Last Ride," the fictionalized take on the last days of Hank Williams, much of which was filmed in Arkansas, kicks off the festival on Wednesday. Director Harry Thomason, Jett Williams and much of the cast will be on hand for the film's much-anticipated Arkansas debut.

Jimmy McMillan, famous for his "the rent is too damn high" speech at a New York gubernatorial debate, comes to town, too, along with the world premiere about his campaign documentary, "Damn!"

Fresh off his Critics Week win at Cannes, Jeff Nichols will return to Little Rock, but without his acclaimed new film "Take Shelter." Nichols wanted a shot at the $10,000 Oxford American-sponsored award for Best Southern Film that the festival introduced last year. But his distributor, Sony Pictures Classic, has decided not to show the film again until its official release in October. Instead, at 8:15 p.m. Saturday at Riverdale, the Little Rock born filmmaker will show his debut, "Shotgun Stories," screen unseen clips from "Take Shelter" and answer audience questions.

In keeping with tradition, Movies in the Park closes the festival, this time with "Smokey and the Bandit," the directorial debut from pioneering stuntman and all-around bad-ass Hal Needham, who'll return to Arkansas, where he spent much of his childhood, to accept the festival's Diamond Award and talk about his colorful career (more on page 18).

There are parties every night. And after parties. Among the highlights: On Wednesday, the Oxford American hosts the Opening Night Party in the Argenta Community Theater at 8 p.m. On Friday, the festival once again hosts a party aboard the Arkansas Queen, with The See, Emily Wells and DJs Cameron Holifield and Poebot providing the entertainment, 10:30 p.m. (gold pass holders get first priority). Saturday night there are three parties: the Peabody Fashion Show hosted by 607 with performances by Goines, Epiphany, Ear Fear and DJs Poebot and TJ Deeter, 9 p.m.; the "Slow Southern Steel" after party with music from Seahag, Hour of 13 and Music Hates You, 9:30 p.m. (see more on page 24) and the Ferneau Afterparty with music by Bryan Frazier and Adam Faucett, 11:30 p.m. (silver and gold pass holders only). Sunday, the Times hosts the festival gala and awards ceremony once again at the Clinton Library, 6 p.m.

The bronze festival pass is $40. It gets you into just about everything besides the opening night film and the gala. The $100 silver pass includes access to the opening night screening and after party and to the sections of parties where there's complimentary food and drink. The $250 VIP gold pass includes priority seating, access to a LRFF filmmaker lounge, the opening night festivities, a ticket to the gala and more. Visit littlerockfilmfestival.org for more info and to take advantage of an interactive feature that lets you plan your schedule.

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