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Film for the people 

The Little Rock Film Festival returns for year nine with a new director.

GABE GENTRY: The new Little Rock Film Festival director has established a rewards program that provides a path for people who watch a lot of movies to go to the gala celebration image
  • Brian Chilson
  • GABE GENTRY: The new Little Rock Film Festival director has established a rewards program that provides a path for people who watch a lot of movies to go to the gala celebration.

The base formula for the Little Rock Film Festival has always been the same: Treat filmmakers like celebrities — wine them, dine them, throw parties for them, shuttle them around in a car service — and they'll tell their friends. That positive word of mouth will help the festival land films and filmmakers that a midsized festival in a midsized city wouldn't otherwise get. Timing helps, too: The LRFF has always fallen soon after Sundance and SXSW and just weeks after Tribeca, so it's in position to show the best of those fests first. The better the program, the more people come out to watch movies.

Along the way, LRFF artistic director Brent Renaud and executive director Craig Renaud, the Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaking brothers who co-founded the festival along with Owen Brainard and Jamie Moses, have added new wrinkles: moving to venues downtown in order to make the festival more walkable; focusing on the South with a special prize (this year the award is called the Arkansas Times Best Southern Film Award), and establishing a cinematic nonfiction category to highlight documentary films that defy convention, often blurring the line between reportage and fiction.

This year's new addition? The hiring of a festival director, the first the LRFF has had since 2011. Local filmmaker Gabe Gentry took the position earlier this year. A filmmaking collaborator with the Renauds, Gentry is also well versed in all aspects of the festival (he's also, in full disclosure, a close friend of mine). He attended each of the previous eight festivals, either as a paid passholder, a filmmaker or a volunteer. So far, under his leadership, the LRFF has focused on its audience.

This year, the annual gala (sponsored by the Arkansas Times) is happening on Saturday evening, rather than Sunday as in years past. On Sunday, the winners in each category will screen. They'll include the top narrative feature, documentary feature, cinematic nonfiction film, audience favorite, Southern film, world short and film made in Arkansas.

Those who're only interested in seeing the best of the fest can purchase a one-day ticket for $20. Meanwhile, Gentry says he's most proud of the development of a cinephile card, a rewards program for festivalgoers who purchase the lower tier silver ($150) and bronze ($60) passes. Those passholders who get a card stamped at 10 screenings or more will be upgraded to gold passholders on Saturday, which allows them to attend the gala, where there will be all-you-can-eat crawfish, free beer and live bluegrass from the band Runaway Planet.

"Every year we have so many people who love the movies at the festival. They're at the first screening and at the last screening. It's lovely to see. We wanted to find a way to honor that sort of patron," Gentry said.

Another avenue for people to watch movies without investing in a pass: The Clinton School of Public Service is screening seven documentaries from Thursday until Saturday, all of which are free if room remains after passholders have been seated (there usually is).

But those who choose to buy passes (available at festival venues or at littlerockfilmfestival.com) will find plenty of value. More than 100 films will screen throughout the week, most with filmmakers in attendance for post-screening Q&As.

Acclaimed filmmaker Robert Greene, whose film "Actress" (which played at last year's LRFF) was one of the best reviewed and most arresting films released last year, returns this year to program the cinematic nonfiction block; he'll moderate a number of discussions with filmmakers as well.

Then, of course, there are the parties, for which the festival is so well known. At 10 p.m. Thursday, KABF FM, 88.3, hosts a "Summer of '85" dance party featuring the biggest hits from 30 years ago at Good Food By Ferneau in North Little Rock. Friday is the annual party on the Junction Bridge with video and music provided by VJ g-force. It runs from 9 p.m. until midnight. There are after-parties at Crush Wine Bar and The Joint in North Little Rock from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. Saturday's gala at the Old State House kicks off at 8 p.m. Individual tickets to all the parties are available at the door.

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