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DALLAS - For its first edition, in 2007, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival did the unthinkable: It managed to carve an instant niche in the cluttered film-festival landscape, mainly by pouring millions of dollars into an elaborate, “uber”-glamour event that stood in stark contrast to most scrappy, underfinanced regional film festivals.


In 2008, the festival avoided the sophomore slump by strengthening the quality and breadth of film programming and attracting some A-list names, among them Charlize Theron, Robert De Niro and Helen Hunt.


Dallas' upstart film festival is poised for greatness

So can this upstart festival maintain its lucky streak and continue to carve out an identity entirely distinct (but just as high-profile) as Austin’s recently-wrapped South by Southwest Film Festival?


“We’re taking chances that people might not understand right now,” says Michael Cain, artistic director and CEO of the festival. “But we want to take the long approach. We’re asking ourselves: ‘What is it that we can do to bring the spotlight on Texas to the world for the next 50 years?’”


The chances Cain speaks about are not necessarily with the festival’s marquee events, which this year once again include local premieres of high profile, star-driven vehicles such as “The Brothers Bloom” (starring Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz) and “The Burning Plain” (directed by “21 Grams” screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and starring Theron), along with tributes to Brody, director Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break,” “Strange Days”), and the Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).


Like most festival programmers, Cain understands that a certain number of A-list names are needed to sell tickets.


But this year’s program is also rich with intriguing international cinema, including the challenging, beautifully directed IRA drama “Hunger” and the Argentine comedy-drama “Empty Nest.” Cain also believes in the importance of educational and film history-based programming. To wit: On April, 2, Cain has scheduled a tribute to the late Rita Hayworth (her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, will accept the honor), along with a screening of the iconic actress’s most famous effort, “Gilda.”


The same night, the festival is also kicking off a new series at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas called “Book to Film,” with a screening of “The Last Picture Show,” with director Peter Bogdanovich in attendance.


“We’re in a lucky position, in some ways, to help re-brand the way people think of Dallas and Fort Worth,” Cain says. “People come to town and prepare to be underwhelmed, but then they’re like, ‘We had no idea (these cities) had so much to offer.’”


As with most arts organizations, the deep-pocketed AFI Film Festival has not been immune to the economic downturn. Target reduced some of its sponsorship support, and Audi dropped out entirely (though Cain says that Lexus has stepped up to pick up some of the slack).


But Cain insists that the festival hasn’t skimped on anything - and that, in fact, it will be a more concentrated and effective event than ever before.


“We given some stuff up, but in other areas we’ve added,” he says. “The family component was a one-day event last year, but this year it’s a two-day event.”


In addition, Cain says, an “environmental visions” category has been added this year. The lineup includes a documentary about preventing whale hunting in the Antarctic Ocean (“At the Edge of the World”) and a horror film about a vegan woman pregnant with her first child (the terrific “Grace”).


As for the challenging task of sifting through the 180 scheduled screenings to figure out what you should see, Cain has a hard time selecting favorites. But he encourages festivalgoers to explore the unknown.


“It’s like when you first open up a museum, like the Nasher or the Modern,” he says. “We’re curating something. Our doors are open to everyone. And we want you to come in and take a chance.”


___


AFI DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL


Thursday to April 2


Individual tickets: $6.50 to $25


Passes and packages: $50 to $750


214-720-0555; www.afidallas.com


Tagged as: film festivals
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