Posted by Vivek on April 21, 2011 | No Comments

A festival is not about one person, but by the same token it is about one person’s vision and perseverance against all odds. It is about that one single minded passion which overrides everything that they do. The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), is the co mingling of Indian cinema with Hollywood and it is also the result of a vision initiated by Christina Marouda. But having a vision is only part of the game, executing on it, is the other, Christina has achieved both, with the 9 year old IFFLA. Here we get her one on one.

The question you must have been asked a million times- What’s a Greek American woman, doing promoting Bollywood films?

Actually I’ve been in the US for only ten years and my roots are still very Greek. I’ve always liked Indian films. I have a passion for musicals, I discovered Indian films when I was a teenager. My sister had a lot of friends from India because she is an International Law attorney, who travelled the world. Her friend’s from south of India would send us Tamil films. So I got introduced to that scene when I was a teenager and then I kind of let it go. Studied International Relations in Greece, worked there and then went to Spain and Italy and studied and worked there and then I decided to do a MBA in Marketing. Wanting to specialize in the Entertainment Industry, I came to the US, started working in LionsGate and then I went to the AFI (American Film Institute). Worked with the Los Angeles Film Festival, when I realized that none of the two largest festivals in LA, were showing Indian films. To me that didn’t make sense cause you are presenting so many countries and where is India, which is the largest producer of films. That was 2002, right after Monsoon Wedding, Lagaan had been nominated for the Oscar’s, in effect India was slowly entering the US culture. From Yoga to spiritualism, to fashion. I went to a screening of Lagaan and it was an afternoon screening in a very uncomfortable theater and it was actually packed with non Indians. It was right here in West LA, in Santa Monica Blvd. There was no intermission, it played for 4 whole hours, but the audience seemed to love it. That’s when the thought occurred to me that there is a market. So I went home and I started doing some research on Indian films. At that point I was still with AFI, so I approached the director of AFI fest and asked to do a sidebar of Indian films and I would be happy to run it, or should I go on my own and be independent. He advised me to be independent, because I would have more control, more flexibility and AFI would support me by becoming an affiliate of the festival. They introduced me to Archlight and so on. So I started a non profit, found a few volunteers , found a programmer in India, Uma De Cunha. I put together a Board of Directors and we started. It was a very small team of volunteers. The idea being to let’s do it and see where it takes us, cause I could see a lot of potential and I’m glad that happened back then.

The challenges?

A2) Well there was a) how do you raise money for something that is just a concept and a vision. I didn’t have anything to show. They would ask us, demographics, how many films do you expect, how many people. We didn’t have this information, cause we didn’t have a history to go with. We couldn’t apply for grants in the first two years. Then the community was like, she is Greek, what is her agenda. Once they realized in the first year that I did not have any hidden agenda. My agenda was lets make this work and lets make sure it is a festival of International Standards. Then they started embracing it.

My big complaint about festivals has been that it is somewhat not grounded in reality, but you guys get the business elements involved too?

It was a conscious effort. The second year of the festival we started the one on one program, which is like a speed dating, but not really. A pitching session. We had two sessions and every session has ten executives and there are meetings  and one on one with the filmmakers. So that we’ve been doing for eight years now, its been working really well. But that was not very visible. It was very obvious to the filmmakers for sure. We started doing seminars, but our main initiative has been the industry leadership awards, which is now in its fourth year. I mean we are in LA, its very easy for the studios to just send someone since we are local and we are not asking for the head of the studio, they can send anyone. And they do send. But they were sending those who were not decision makers. So we were trying to figure out how do we get the decision makers to pay attention. We would invite them for the films, but honestly they are not the kind of people who watch a lot of films. So we needed to create an event that is catered to them and we decided to do the luncheon awards. Lunch because in dinnertime we again loose them, as they are looking forward to being back home. So we said let them come to the House of Blues, for a max of two hours, treat it like any business lunch and on top of that if one of their colleagues is being honored, they will come. So that was their purpose. We can only do that much with films, but if we don’t have the industry to come and pay attention, that would not serve the film and the filmmakers. In general we kind of like to place filmmakers next to executives, to start a dialogue, highlight them, etc. So it has been a process and we have collaborated two years with Korn Ferry International and we have collaborated with the most influential South Asian executives in US entertainment. Last year we profiled South Asian woman executives. We’ve done a lot of those events and we try to continue to do the events throughout the year, as well.

There is a feeling in Mumbai that people like Anuraag have gotten into prominence in the East because of the initial recognition in the West, as in IFFLA created their presence in India, prior to their own country recognizing them?

In a lot of countries, including Greece, you have to go out of your country, for your country to start paying attention to you. It happens to me as well. And I think India is one of those countries, unfortunately. You have to prove yourself outside in order for the people at home to start paying attention. So a lot of filmmakers got their first break into one festival overseas and after a while their own country started to pay attention and look at how well they are doing now.

What is the criteria of choosing films?

We received over 350 submissions over the course of four months. We go back one year in terms of production. So for next year as an example we will showcase films made in 2011 and maybe, just maybe 2010, if it did not get noticed. Then we also see whether they have been screened in LA, cause we like to focus on premiers only. We know our audience quite well, so we want to make sure the film will play well, as the audience is 60% South Asian and 40 %, not. We have to strike a balance. We also need to cater to the LA based press. Every festival has its own audience and the film that can play really well in Mumbai or London, may not play well here at all. Hence we don’t want to program a film that we know Variety is just going to rip apart. Over the course of the year we have the ballots and the ballots tells a lot about what the audience likes. So we have a very good idea of what we have to program for our audience, so we don’t want to program films that no one will come and see. We also cannot ignore Bollywood, or overload the festival with Bollywood. Similar is the case with documentaries, how many people are going to actually come and see them extensively, so we need some, but not a whole lot in the final mix, enough to have a competition but not excessive. On Shorts, we can only accommodate two shorts programs, so how many do we choose and are they different. Then there are also films that you just cannot get. This is the best we could get. We have a team of six people and every film that comes in is seen by at least two members of the programming team. If those two don’t like it at all and there is no reason for a third person to see it, we retire it. If one of the two of them likes it just a little bit then at least three if not all six of us will see it, but by the time the programming is done, most of us have seen everything.

So where do you see yourself and this festival going?

Next year is the tenth year anniversary so it is really important and we feel that over the course of the last nine years, we have established ourselves. I think that closing on the first decade gives you the opportunity to take the festival to the next level. At this point our message is “we’re here, we are established, nothing breaks us and we are very much ready for the studios to come our way, which has been happening.” Also going to a more institutional route, which means being more active in the development of programs. We launched last year the IFFLA Film Fund and we gave development grant to a writer. And that writer is now shooting his film and Harvey Keitel is in the lead. So we want to be active but it all comes down to funding. Cause these are grants we give out meaning we have to keep raising money, not only for these grants but also for the operational expenses. I see myself continuing to play a role in the festival, being on the board, not perhaps going to be super hands on. I mean given that we are entering the tenth year ,I have set the tone and everything is in place for other people to come and run with it. It will always be my baby and I will always be very much involved, but I am also very ready to letting things go, because I feel like we are in a good position to do that. One’s vision and passion can only go that far, in order for an organization to go to the next level, fresh blood has to be infused in. I mean having been involved in Non Profits, when you see directors stay on board for 30 years it’s dysfunctional.

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