There are moviegoers and there are film buffs. The intent of the Phoenix Film Festival is to convert the former into the latter.
The cheese in the trap are "showcase" features starring Bruce Willis, Hugh Grant or Luke Wilson, many of them already scheduled for wide release in coming months. Among the stars appearing at this year's event are Laurence Fishburne, Robert Wagner and Melissa Joan Hart.
"A lot of people who are not familiar with film festivals need to see stars in their movie to make them want to see the film," festival director Chris Lamont says. "Our hope is they'll see all the programming we have and want to see the other films, too."
The showcase movies this year are Fishburne's Akeelah and the Bee, about an inner-city girl who makes it to the National Spelling Bee; Grant's American Dreamz, a spoof on American Idol-style reality TV; and Lucky Number Slevin, a thriller starring Willis, Josh Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley.
The star power of that last movie alone is enough to attract a crowd, but the sixth annual festival, expanded from four to eight days, has enough variety to satiate the most rabid film buff. Eleven competition features will vie for Copper Wing awards, which include best picture, best director and best screenplay, there's a world cinema competition and a slew of short films.
"The film-festival crowd is a completely different animal," says Chris Gore, who will be in town for the screening of My Big Fat Independent Movie, a spoof on the indie world that he co-wrote and co-produced. "These people seek out movies at festivals . . . that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see."
"Seeing a movie at a festival is a different experience," says Gore, who's also the creator of the Web site filmthreat.com, "and I think a more intimate one (because) you have access to the filmmakers and actors. It's sort of the difference between going to a stadium to see your favorite band or going to a small dive bar where you can make eye contact."
Of course, most bands that play small dive bars are dreaming of someday filling stadiums, and the bulk of the titles at festivals like this one are by aspiring filmmakers who make shorts to display their talent. This year's festival includes eight shorts programs, in categories for live action, animated, world cinema, Arizona filmmakers, college and high-school/grade-school shorts.
"The shorts programs always sell out, because people love to see fresh talent and new ideas," Lamont says. "And if they don't like the movie they're watching, it's going to be over in five minutes anyway."
The event begins Thursday at the Harkins Scottsdale 101 with a reception at 5 p.m. and the Arizona première of Akeelah and the Bee at 7, followed by a Q&A with Fishburne and writer-director Doug Atchison. Admission to the opening gala is $40 ($30 for students and seniors).
Phoenix Film Festival
When: March 16 through March 30.
Where: Harkins Scottsdale 101, 7000 E. Mayo Blvd. (Scottsdale Road and Loop 101), Phoenix.
Admission: $10 for individual screenings. Package options range from the $30 Flex Pass, good for four films, to the $425 VIP Patron Pass. Discounts for students and seniors.
Details: (602) 955-6444 or phoenixfilmfestival.com.