the Los Angeles International Film Exposition — the original film fest in L.A…
“Filmex was, for many of us, the introduction to alternative film in Los Angeles,” recalled producer Tom Pollock, who served as chairman of the board of trustees of Filmex in those early years.
The first Filmex was launched on Nov. 5, 1971, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, with the premiere of “The Last Picture Show” and featured a circus-like opening night with a tightrope walker, a fire-eater and an elephant greeting the guests.
Pollock said the elephant was the brainchild of the late Gary Essert and the late Gary Abraham, who ran Filmex and were fondly referred to as “The Garys.” “Filmex was a different kind of film festival,” Pollock added. “You wouldn’t see elephants at Sundance.”
Filmex featured a 24-hour movie marathon at the El Rey Theatre one year. Snow globes were given away as favors in 1981. There was a special license plate on the second official vehicle of Filmex, used in 1985 for transporting prints and guests.
Director Alfred Hitchcock arrived for the premiere of his film “Family Plot” in 1976 driving a Universal Studios tour bus and was later seen dining with Jimmy Stewart and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma.
By 1987, Filmex had morphed into AFI Fest, which in 1990 honored the Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, for his film “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”
1971: Gary Essert (along with partner Gary Abraham) founds the Los Angeles International Film Expo (a.k.a. Filmex). The festival’s first edition, opening Nov. 5, featured The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdonovich) as its opening-night film, in addition to 40 other filmic selections. L.A. Times critic Arthur Knight reported that year that the L.A. Filmex could be an excellent avenue for garnering prestige for challenging and creative American films, which were largely being ignored on the international festival circuit and by American audiences (unfortunately, in its early years, few American films were entered). New films (by the likes of Pasolini, Demy, Chabrol and Bresson) screened at Grauman’s Chinese Theater alongside retrospectives of silent comedy icons like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, film noir and Alfred Hitchcock. At its inception, the festival was non-competitive.
1972: Despite strong attendance, Filmex ends its second year with a budget deficit.
1974: Filmex moves from Grauman’s to the Paramount Theater in Hollywood. Films by Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain), Orson Welles (Fake) and Paul Verhoeven (Turkish Delight) have their American premieres at Filmex.
1980: Ten years on, the festival’s annual budget rises to about $600,000. At this point, Filmex is, as Charles Schreger writes in the L.A. Times, a film festival for the film industry (or, as Schreger writes, a festival “for the cineaste who would rather burn his copy of ‘Agee on Film’ than admit he enjoyed ‘Star Trek’”). Schreger estimates that 50,000 filmgoers were in attendance. In 1980, Essert boasts that Filmex is second to none.
1983: Personality clashes lead to Essert being ousted from the festival he created. Essert goes on to create American Cinematheque.
1985: Jerry Weintraub elected director by Filmex’s board. Weintraub announces plans to introduce compeition into Filmex by 1987 and plans to make Filmex more populist. Amidst other ambitious claims, Weintraub claims, “I’ll go head-to-head with Cannes for films.”
1986: Saddled with debt, Filmex merges with Essert’s American Cinematheque. Jerry Weintraub steps down as director.
1987: Filmex becomes the AFI Fest, in the wake of Filmex’s financial struggles (an estimated debt of over $300,000). AFI Fest, held at Hollywood’s Los Feliz Theater, is declared a success, despite lower ticket sales, reaching new audiences.
1992: Filmex (and American Cinematheque) founders Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams, partners for over 20 years, die of AIDS within a week of one another.
1993: AFI Fest’s budget is around $400,000. Its new incarnation is trimmed down and less flashy.
1995: Festival changes names again (it becomes simply the L.A. Film Festival).