Miami fest director Jaie Laplante on finding the right festival rhythm

MIAMI – Being the director of any film festival requires a dauntingly broad skill set: the best in the business are at once discerning cinephiles, persuasive businesspeople, savvy media monitors and charismatic public figures. Their own expert appreciation of the artform can't interfere with their intuitive popular touch; they must interact with industry, journalists and paying audiences with equal care and cordiality, usually at the same time. A film festival lasts less than a fortnight; building and running it is a year-round job.

Canadian-born Jaie Laplante, director of the Miami International Film Festival since 2011, ticks all these boxes, fully aware of the role that sheer force of personality can play in building a smaller festival's brand. Over the nine-day event, you'd be forgiven for wondering if he's had some success in the field of human cloning: present at a daily panoply of screenings, Q&As, parties and junkets – seemingly with a fresh, peppily colored outfit for each event – he works hard maintain a sense of unified leadership on an ever-expanding festival. This year's programme included over 140 features; Laplante knows every one.

In his fourth year at the helm – and the festival's 31st edition – hings are beginning to fall into place: “This year has synthesized a lot of things I”ve been trying to do in terms of developing an identity, some kind of character, over the past three years that I”ve directed it,” he says, looking improbably chilled in crisp aqua shirtsleeves, as we seek a sunny table in the garden of Miami's plush Standard Hotel. “It”s been satisfying to sit back and see the audience connecting with the programming and also the industry folks connecting together, getting the right mix of people here.”

Laplante has been on the other side of the filmmaking fence: having studied screenwriting and production at York University in Toronto, and received a Canadian Genie Award nomination for his first film feature script, “Sugar,” in 2004, he has an affinity for the creative process that makes him a sensitive but exacting programmer. He has precocious critical experience under his belt too: at the age of 10, he was asking his mother for Pauline Kael books. Two years later, he was assigned the film review column in his local paper after sending in a complaint about his predecessor. “I had already hit puberty, so my voice was this deep,” he laughs. “They only found out my age when I went to get my first paycheck.”

Laplante relocated to Miami in 1998, where he worked extensively in events and managed the city's Gay & Lesbian Film Festival before setting his sights on the big one. “The festival producers were looking for someone local, instead of flying in these European directors who weren”t working out, because I think they had a hard time understanding the city. And it”s a hard town to get to know. Coming from Canada, we have this very proper style of doing things and we're very on time, and here, there's a completely different rhythm. It took me a good year to understand it.”

How does that Miami rhythm distinguish it from other festivals? “We embrace films that have a high entertainment value or, you know, a kind of commercial appeal – films that not every festival will take, but that really suit our audience.

“I'd attended ever year since 1998, and had seen the festival go through some highs and lows. I'd felt a real struggle with programming films that the programmers maybe felt people should see, as opposed to films that people want to see. Having been in Toronto in my formative years and seen TIFF become this big monster, I truly understood that the power of any festival was in its audience. If you lose your audience or you don”t have an audience, you don”t have any power anywhere. So I wanted to regain the trust of the audience we had, and then find those people that weren”t coming to the festival and see if they could be introduced to it.”

In a city like Miami, of course, that means engaging directly with the city's cultural diversity, hence its strong, defining emphasis on Latin American cinema: “The very first festivals, in the early 1980s, were heavier on Spain, but Latin American cinema in the last 15 years has developed into a creative force,” he says. But they've upped the American quotient too: “I want the festival to be more of a cultural bridging point; there are so many festivals in Latin America where they can all get together and show their work, but it's very inward-looking. We want to be a gateway point for those filmmakers into the U.S. and international markets.”

In addition to securing more world premieres, Laplante has also upped the festival's support of projects at the pre-production and post-production stages: “They feel that warmth and that family commitment to be there with their actual finished films in the end.” He's particularly excited about having hosted the festival's first work-in-progress premiere this year, showcasing the upcoming Cuban documentary “Havana Motor Club”: “It”s like 95% of the way there, but can”t find that last 5%. So I was pushing to at least start the exposure of the film.”

Though many of the festival's selections reside in traditionally audience-friendly terrain, Laplante is happy to balance the thrillers and comedies with riskier work: “It”s really instinctual,” he explains. “I don”t have any kind of formula where I”m thinking, 'Oh, I can get 7% of this challenging work into the lineup. And even with some avant-garde work, there”ll be a spirit underneath it that audiences – even ones who don”t look at film in a formal way – will respond to even if they”re not sure why. So I look for films with that spirit.”

He takes great pride, too, in the festival's tribute events for established filmmakers – honoring Susanne Bier in Laplante's first year, mere days after her Oscar win for “In a Better World,” remains a favorite memory. “I don”t think any American festival had previously honored her that way, and the theater was full, so that was very special. Honoring John Turturro this year also made me very proud. I don”t think one should wait until people are that much older; I always feel that the time to celebrate someone is when they make a career-defining achievement. When you know their latest film is going to be one of those highlights, that”s a great time to do it.”

He cites Pedro Almodovar as a formative inspiration – “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” being a particular eye-opener in his youth – and, of course, a dream tribute guest. It hasn't happened yet, but “certainly not for lack of determination,” he chuckles.

The 2014 edition of the Miami fest may have just wrapped, but that doesn't mean Laplante will be taking much of a breather – with Laplante and Ecuadorian journalist Andres Castillo programming the bulk of the lineup themselves, much of the rest of the year will be taken up with travel, as they secure films and contacts for next year. San Sebastian and Toronto are staples on the festival route, but South America and Australia are also heavily covered, with recent expansion into Central America.

While seeking to enrich and diversify the programme itself, Laplante doesn't mind admitting his substantial commercial ambitions for this festival. “Miami has previously had a lot of tickets bought at the door, which is nerve-racking, but this year, we had films selling out days, even weeks, in advance,” he beams. “Creating buzz to a point where all the tickets are sold in advance – that”s what I want. I'm not ashamed of that goal – it's focused on the people for whom we”re doing this festival. I want our audience to feel the love.”