The sidecar martinis, mahogany booths and waiters in crisp red waistcoats, Musso & Frank Grill is pure old Hollywood. Twenty years ago, so was the man sitting across KCET producer Claire Aguilar, director of broadcasting Jackie Kain and Daniel Fisher. Jack Larson was best known as Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter on the original Superman TV show. That day, Larson stepped inside the century-old Tinseltown hangout with an idea that would become his legacy: the “Fine Cut Festival of Films,” which airs its 20th season this October.
Get a taste of "Fine Cut" this year, it's 20th season. Watch this preview.
After his days as Jimmy Olsen, Larson had a storied career as a playwright, librettist and producer. He had often collaborated with his life partner, the actor/director James Bridges, and it was in his memory that Larson endeavored to help L.A.’s community of up and coming filmmakers.
“He wanted to help mentor film students and showcase their work, especially from the fine film schools in Southern California,” Aguilar said, recalling the excitement and clarity of vision Larson displayed as he explained what he had in mind that night at Musso & Frank.
The idea was to take student films and air them in one-hour episodes on KCET each year, so the filmmakers’ stories could reach a broader audience.
For the KCET team and Larson, "Fine Cut” seemed the perfect project for the television station to take on. Larson wanted to give student filmmakers the rare opportunity to have their work seen outside of special screenings and niche film festivals. What’s more, “Fine Cut” also dovetailed neatly with public television’s mandate to tell the stories of its SoCal audience, which in Los Angeles, included many filmmakers.
For students whose films were selected, “Fine Cut” was that long-awaited launchpad to bigger opportunities. “Every year, I’d hear about someone moving on or up. There were people who went out of their way to tell me they’d gotten hired, or that they’d gotten a call to do a French version of their film…” said Bohdan Zachary, who oversaw “Fine Cut” for 15 years starting in 2000.
“It was a testament to what we could do and how we could promote new talent,” he said.
Jack Larson with "Fine Cut" filmmakers, 2009
Larson’s passion for supporting emerging filmmakers never wavered throughout the years. “In 2014, when Jack was our on-air host, I could tell how invested he was helping young filmmakers. He loved watching the student films every year, seeing what stories were on their minds and what new things they were exploring,” said Boisvert.
But, as Zachary notes, Larson believed in building strong foundations. He especially thought it was important that young directors become adept at working with good actors and strong scripts, rather than the “next big thing in special effects,” according to Zachary. This has also been the guiding principle for the show’s producers.
“Fine Cut is curated by representing as much of Los Angeles as we can, from the schools in Southern California to the diversity of the filmmakers as well as continuing to be as inclusive as possible to the subject matter and filmmaking teams,” said Boisvert, one of the show’s producers, “We strive to represent the distinctiveness that makes up L.A. in six episodes.”
Twenty years on, “Fine Cut” has a reputation and name recognition that give its participants an edge in their field, but it wasn’t easy at first.
In the beginning, “Fine Cut” leaned on Larson’s relationships with the filmmaking schools around Southern California. The schools submitted student films that they deemed of good enough quality to air on public television to “Fine Cut” producers, who then selected what would go on air.
“Thank god for Jack Larson. He had such strong ties to the film schools, and he was very interested in developing talent,” said Claire Aguilar, who oversaw the program for four years in the early 2000s and is now one of the show’s judges. “At the time there wasn’t many student film showcases on TV. This was the first broadcast showcase for student films.”
Watch Jack Larson and see his passion for honing the talent of young filmmakers as he presents "Fine Cut."
Informing viewers about a television series of student films — a novel idea, even today — also presented another challenge. “There was no online promotion, so it was really just press or word of mouth for the broadcast. We did all we could to draw people to broadcast; we’d list it and garner reviews. But there wasn’t an online platform at the time,” Aguilar said.
While submissions during its early days came at a steady stream, it was three years ago that flood gates opened for “Fine Cut.”
In 2016, “Fine Cut” adjusted its format to that of a festival where student filmmakers could submit their films themselves rather than schools curating the student films for KCET. This was a change for the better, said Boisvert. “The new format allowed us [as producers] to reach out to more schools with film programs and include a wider range of students all over Southern California.”.”
“Fine Cut” also approached industry professionals to act as judges for the submissions and offered prizes intended to help fledgling filmmakers hone their craft, including a trip to the Cannes Film Festival with The American Pavillion. This has opened up the number of submissions each year growing from an average 100 to over 400.
“Fine Cut” represents a rare opportunity for valuable exposure, said filmmaker Omar Aldakheel. “It gives you a more specific audience.” His “al imam” won Best Documentary film last year. “Being specific doesn’t mean less of an audience. With other platforms such as YouTube… you may not get enough viewership because there’s just so much content out there.”
Aldakheel asserted that the show’s selectivity, its well-known brand and affiliation with a prestigious institution like KCET meant that there was already a built-in audience that would tune in to watch his film. It also enabled him to find a whole new audience he otherwise might not have reached.
“[Fine Cut] got us into more festivals as well, including Beirut International Film Festival, which is a big step. Being a female imam is outlawed in the Arab world, and our story deals with that,” he said.
Watch "al imam" now.
CalArts graduate student Jungmin Cha, 26, won for the Best Animated Short award in 2018, which she credits with transforming her career as an animator.
“I ended up going to the Cannes Film Festival, one of the biggest festivals in the world, meeting new filmmakers. If it were not for the ‘Fine Cut Festival,’ I would’ve never been able to get this opportunity,” she said.
Get a glimpse of "Where I was Born," an animated critique of social issues in South Korea. Watch this preview.
All of last year’s “Fine Cut” winners agreed that the prestige associated with the festival elevated their profiles as filmmakers and that it presented them with opportunities to make useful connections with professionals in the industry. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the last 20 years.
Aqsa Altaf won Best Narrative film award last year with her short, “One Small Step.”
“I got a lot of meetings out of it, which I think are seeds I have planted that will pay off sooner and later on in my career,” Altaf said.
It’s an interesting time to be breaking into the film industry. New talent is everywhere, especially online. Platforms like Facebook, Film Freeway, Kickstarter all serve emerging filmmakers looking to get eyeballs on their projects.
“[Now] I can see fantastic short films from around the world on any platform,” said Zachary. “But we have a brand that people know.”
The Internet has an unlimited global reach, but KCET is much more likely to reach people in the film industry concentrated in Southern California. “Fine Cut” helps young filmmakers cut through the noise they often run up against on flooded online platforms.
It’s in this brave new digital world that “Fine Cut” takes on a whole new kind of significance. It is that foot in a door that suddenly seems to swing open a little wider, a little easier because of the experience, the stamp of approval, and the exposure that Jack Larson’s legacy, “Fine Cut,” provides.