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The Little Rock Film Festival was an almost unmitigated success in year four. The crowds swelled — to 25,000, up 25% from last year and almost 10 times the audience of year one. The programming throughout the five-day whirlwind was strong and, as we've come to expect, thrillingly diverse. More filmmakers than ever before attended, which meant that most screenings were followed by edifying panel discussions. A new partnership with the Oxford American and a strengthened one with the Clinton School helped the festival draw an array of exciting Southern films and documentaries. Even the parties, not to mention the after parties and after-after parties, were bigger and better this year.
The night after the festival ended, executive director Jack Lofton already was talking about ways to improve next year's event.
"We're aiming for a 100% attendance rate: bringing in a filmmaker from each of the 100-plus films we screen. We want to increase the prize money and provide a monetary award for the Golden Rock awards in order to get bigger films, more world premieres."
But with expansion comes its own share of problems, like venue capacity. Festival goers were turned away from the opening night film and many of the other high profile films were so crowded there were a number of people standing.
Lofton says he's looking at different options, but remains intent on keeping everything downtown to retain the urban feel of the festival and to showcase both Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Yet even with expansion and improvement, Lofton maintains that the festival will place the same emphasis on one of its original tenets: affordability. The basic five-day festival pass cost $30 this year.
"We do this with a fraction of what other film festivals spend," says Lofton. "Hotels, printing, event spaces, they're all donated; we're tremendously lucky to have such a supportive downtown and such loyal attendees. As a non-profit, our budget is dedicated to bring in filmmakers."
So the festival is a success. It might even be a regional juggernaut. But for it to it to rise to the national level, it's going to have to not just bring in more directors and actors, but bring in more directors and actors who're well known. Billy Bob Thornton and Ryan Gosling narrated high profile docs that screened this year. Actors of their stature need to be in attendance if the festival's to create a buzz that really resonates within the industry and national media. That might take a few years. In the meantime, someone needs to build the festival a permanent home in either downtown Little Rock or North Little Rock, something akin to the Malco in Hot Springs, where the LRFF can base its operations and screen special programming throughout the year. Make this happen, movers and shakers.
Prize winners and more
If you followed our preview coverage of the festival in last week's paper and on the web, you got the heads-up on all the films that won awards. "Winter's Bone," which we called a prohibitive favorite to win the Oxford American Southern Prize, didn't take home the $10,000 award; instead it took home the festival's top general prize for narrative, the Golden Rock. But we were just as happy to see "American: The Bill Hicks Story," which we put on our cover last week, take the prize.
Constantly engaging, moving along from Hicks' typical childhood in Houston, through his battles with (and celebration in) booze and coke and, ultimately, to his early death as a 32-year-old here in Little Rock, "American" treats the comedy cult hero with equal parts reverence and familiarity and succeeds in spades. Played on Thursday to a standing-room-only house of Hicks fans, the vaguely familiar and, hopefully, the newly familiarized, "American" sent the audience jumping from hysterics to admiration; when it ended, the audience was either too hushed or too shaken to applaud. Half a minute later, the hands began to clap and a number of the audience rose up for a standing ovation.