Why The L.A. Jewish Film Festival Gets Minimal Support From Hollywood

It programs high quality movies and TV shows from around the world but has a hard time attracting today’s hot stars, high profile moguls and big movies

At the 2014 L.A. Jewish Film Festival (l to r) Laugh-In producer George Schlatter, actor/director Carl Reiner, Everybody Loves Phil Executive Producer Phil Rosenthal and festival director Hilary Helstein

There is some Hollywood history on tap at this year’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which kicks off a week long run May 18.

That includes documentaries on the legacy of the 1956 drama Giant and another on Menahem Golan, whose Cannon Films in the 1980s paved the way for modern independent movie production and distribution.

There will also be an opening night tribute to the Laemmle family, who have helped bring art movies to L.A. for 75 years; and closing night will feature a screening of the 1944 war drama None Shall Escape, featuring an appearance by 98-year-old actress Marsha Hunt, who was blacklisted in the 1950s.

However, what you won’t find at this year’s festival are hot current Hollywood stars or participation by the big producers or major studios, even though the industry includes many people of Jewish heritage. That is the challenge the festival has faced for its 11 years. Even though it takes place in the heart of the show biz, the industry has barely noticed its existence.

“It’s very challenging,” admits festival director Hilary Helstein, adding: “Of course we try when we can. You know in Hollywood there are 25 things in a night you could do.”

Two years ago the festival attracted then 92-year-old actor, producer, writer and director Carl Reiner, who came to honor the passing that year of his friend Sid Caesar, and was interviewed by Everybody Loves Raymond Executive Producer Phil Rosenthal. Other years they have had participation by Jon Voight, Lainie Kazan and Joan Rivers.

The organization often works with specialty distributors and does screenings and events during the year including recent ones with Oscar winner Martin Landau and Star Trek’s George Takei.

Actor Jon Voight, of Showtime's Ray Donovan, attended the 2012 L.A. Jewish Film Festival

Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of Tribe Media, the non-profit which publishes the Jewish Journal and since 2012 has been the corporate parent of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival, calls efforts to attract more stars and industry participation a “work in progress.”

“It’s something (Helstein) wants to work on,” says Eshman, who notes the Israeli Film Festival, a separate event held each fall, has done a better job of getting stars to participate including Bette Midler, Rachel Weisz, Helen Mirren and Naomi Watts along with writer Aaron Sorkin and high profile moguls such as Revenant executive producer Arnon Milchan, Sony’s Tom Rothman and Fox’s Jim Gianopulos.

“With Israel you get the cause,” says Eshman. “With ‘Jewish,’ what’s the cause? It’s a softer sell…With Israel you are selling the urgency of promoting Israel and marketing Israel and doing the cultural defense of Israel. With a Jewish festival, who are you protecting, defending, saving, pushing? It’s a little different.”

When Meir Fenigstein founded the Israeli Film Festival 34 years ago, there were almost no other festivals programmed with a Jewish theme. Today there are Jewish festivals not only in L.A., but also in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Chicago and other cities.

This week at the Cannes International Film Festival, Fenigstein is on hand to promote three decades of programming his festival as part of the first ever Israeli pavilion dedicated to promoting movies made in Israel.

“The idea is really to connect the Hollywood community to Israel,” says Fenigstein.

Fenigstein’s event presents only Israeli films while the L.A. Jewish Film Festival programs movies and TV shows from all over the world.

One frequent theme is the holocaust. That was the subject of Son of Saul last year and will be a theme in some of this year’s films including A La Vie from France, Fever at Dawn from Hungary and Sweden, and The People vs Fritz Bauer from Germany.

Helstein said she regularly communicates with Fenigstein. “We are showing a number of Israeli films this year,” she adds. “We work together. He shows all his films in the fall and I get some new films that come out in the Spring.”

On opening night, the L.A. Jewish Film Festival will host the North American premiere of the first two episodes of Israel’s hottest TV series, the espionage thriller False Flag. The format has already sold to a Hollywood studio to be remade for American television, a journey made previously by the acclaimed Showtime series Homeland and other shows.

Almost all of the fest screenings are followed by panel discussions or a question and answer session with stars, filmmakers or others related to the movie or TV show.

Last year the festival presented the premiere of the critically acclaimed Hungarian movie Son of Saul, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes and went on to win an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The Israeli festival has a big advantage in that it gets not only movies, but also financial support from organizations associated with the state of Israel, to go with money raised from supporters, promotional partners and ticket sales.

The Jewish Film Festival last year played to over 5,000 people in an increasing number of venues, including several Laemmle Theaters around L.A.

Working with a very small staff of about five people (who do everything from programming to fund raising) and a group of volunteers (who often help with community outreach), the L.A. Jewish Film Festival raises funds to cover its own expenses, although it receives free office space and back office support from Tribe Media. Helstein said the festival makes a profit but declined to share the size of the annual budget.

“It’s very difficult to do something in Los Angeles,” says Helstein. “We are an international festival but at the same time we have a Jewish focus, mostly looking at Jewish culture, Jewish character, customs, values. Often times we face the challenge of hearing, ‘Oh, this is about religion.’ But religion is not our focus. We are looking at a bigger picture.”

Helstein does get some donations and support from Israelis and the Israeli consulate when she has a specific movie they might want to help promote. She makes the same effort with consulates for Germany, France, Argentina, Hungary and other countries when the festival features movies from those countries.

Each year Helstein tries to expand the festival not only in terms of movies but to play new venues and attract an ever wider audience, including Jews and non-Jews.

This year, for instance, for the first time there is a program being held at the 101-year-old Breed Street Shul (synagogue) in East Los Angeles. The documentary is about the Boyle Heights neighborhood. It has already sold out well in advance.

Before World War II and the coming of freeways (which chopped up the area), Boyle Heights was the largest Jewish neighborhood west of Chicago. It was also a melting pot where the Jews lived alongside Hispanics, African Americans, Japanese Americans and others in relative harmony.

Today few Jews live in Boyle Heights, so the movie called East L.A. Interchange will also have a second presentation at a theater in Encino, where many of those Jews and their descendants live today.

Eshman says Tribe Media plans to make the L.A. Jewish Film Festival “much bigger,” and to use the leverage of the Jewish Journal, which distributes 50,000 copies a week, and gets about four million unique visitors each month online, to better sell, promote and connect the festival.

“Bigger means more people attending,” says Eshman, “bigger movies, more tie ins to the mainstream Hollywood community, bigger stars and bringing the demo down to make it a little younger that it is right now. That’s all in the works.”

“Ultimately (movie) distributors want films to be seen by the largest possible audience and that’s the job of the film festival,” said Helstein, “whether you are on the grand scale of Palm Springs or Santa Barbara or on a smaller scale like the L.A. Jewish Film Festival.”

“But the bottom line is the quality of the films you get and are able to deliver to the community,” adds Helstein, “and the relationships you build with distributors so that they know they can trust you and work with you and that you will deliver the goods.”

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