By Jordan Riefe
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with the North American premiere of Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love," an ensemble comedy that is the veteran director's follow-up to last year's successful "Midnight in Paris."
The 76-year-old filmmaker's 2011 tale of romance in the City of Light was Allen's most successful box office performer to date over a long career, earning more than $150 million at worldwide box offices and winning Allen an Oscar for screenwriting.
"To Rome with Love" drew mixed reviews in Europe where it debuted earlier this year, but Allen and the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, are hoping the Los Angeles Film Festival in Hollywood's hometown and the North American release on June 22 will offer a fresh start for the movie.
"If you like the picture, I'm thrilled," Allen told the packed house before the lights went down, then added with his wry sense of humor. "If you hate it and think it was a waste of time coming, don't let me know cause I get depressed easily."
In its 18th year, the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is organized by non-profit group Film Independent continues to lure ever bigger movies and crowds. This year's event from June 14-24 features over 200 films, shorts and videos from 30 countries.
Independent and international filmmakers get the chance to mingle with directors such as William Friedkin ("The Exorcist"), Steven Soderbergh and Allen at panels, screenings and parties.
"Woody Allen, Steve Soderbergh, even the studio fare, it's visionary, it's a unique voice," festival director Stephanie Allain told Reuters. "That's really what's celebrated."
Making its world premiere on closing night, Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike," starring Channing Tatum, is loosely based on the actor's experience as a male stripper.
Between Allen's opening film and Soderbergh's closing night movie, gala screenings followed by star-studded parties will be held for Pixar's summer movie, "Brave," and Fox Searchlight's Sundance favorite "Beasts of the Southern Wild," as well as the Steve Carell-Keira Knightley apocalyptic comedy, "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."
Guest Director William Friedkin will introduce his new movie, "Killer Joe" starring Matthew McConaughey as a matricidal cowboy. And film composer and frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman will lead a conversation about movies and music.
Lesser-known films from independent writers and directors will compete for prizes - feature film and documentary category winners take home a top prize of $15,000 each.
Among this year's feature narrative competition, alienation is explored in movies like Portugal's "All is Well" about two Angolan sisters who immigrate to Lisbon where they struggle on the fringes of society, and "Four" in which a father and daughter find themselves trapped by lies they tell themselves.
If there's a unifying theme in the documentary competition, it seems to be films about outcasts and rebels. Two titles making their world premieres are "A Band Called Death," a look at the first African American punk band from the 1970s, and "Vampira and Me," about a cult TV icon from the fifties.
Younger filmmakers can learn from industry stalwarts during Sunday "Coffee Talks," a series of panels with actors, directors, composers and screenwriters.
"We really do try to give them the access to established filmmakers," said Allain. "We give them something that you can't usually get when you show up as a filmmaker at a festival."
(Editing By Bob Tourtellotte and Marguerita Choy)