Oscar season boosts L.A. fest's fortunes

AT A GLANCE
What: AFI Festival 2005
When: Nov. 3-13
Features: 92 (75 narrative, 17 docu)
Shorts: 35 (27 narrative, eight docu)
Countries repped: 44
Premieres: 20 world; 21 North American; 18 U.S.
Special events: Four galas; 12 special screenings
Opening night: “Walk the Line” (L.A. premiere)
Centerpieces: “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (U.S. premiere), “The World’s Fastest Indian” (U.S. premiere)
Closing night: “Casanova” (North American premiere)
Foreign-language Oscar submissions: 10 — Germany’s “Sophie Scholl,” Austria’s “Hidden,” France’s “Merry Christmas,” Canada’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” Hungary’s “Fateless,” Mexico’s “On the Other Side,” Norway’s “Kissed by Winter,” Sweden’s “Zozo,” South Africa’s “Tsotsi,” Israel’s “What a Wonderful Place”
Sidebars: American Directions (10), Asian New Classics (10), European Showcase (12), Latin Cinema Series (10), Made in Germany (6)
Competitions: International feature, docu and shorts
Festival HQ: ArcLight Hollywood
Exec director: Christian Gaines
Programming director: Nancy Collet
Tribute honoree: Johnny Depp
Additional info: AFI.com or 1-866-AFI-FEST

When AFI Fest director Christian Gaines looks at the annual event he’s nurtured over six years, he thinks of “stronger rather than bigger.”

“To me, it’s really important to create boundaries and then increase the energy within those boundaries,” says Gaines. He points to this year’s 21 world preems, 20 North American bows and 40 cinematically represented countries as evidence of a festival merging consistency with quality. Then there’s the bold new rooftop village at the ArcLight theater, a fruitful continuing Audi sponsorship and a second year allied with the American Film Market.

Also among AFI Fest’s notable assets is its berth at the dawn of Oscar season, which gives it a special red-carpeted path to the hearts of studios and award seekers. Academy Award winners “Monster’s Ball,” “Talk to Her,” “Monster” and “The Sea Inside” got big traction at AFI Fests past. The buzz-seekers this year include opener “Walk the Line,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “The World’s Fastest Indian” and closer “Casanova.”

“The quality of films that come down the pipeline at this time of year is very high,” says Gaines. “All festivals operate in a world of timing. It’s a cycle, and the challenge is to have some interesting options, to create an event which delivers at a high level for all our constituents.”

Do others agree? “We had a really good experience there,” says Mark Gill, president of Warner Independent Pictures, which showcased “A Very Long Engagement” at AFI Fest 2004. “The timing is impeccable for the launch of prestigious films, so they probably get the best of the independents and the studio films. And if they are able to sustain that level of quality, then frankly it’s a world-class film festival.”

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy MichaelBarker praises how the fest honored Pedro Almodovar around its “Bad Education” screening last year. “It became a major event,” says Barker. “It’s the right context in which you want the public, critics, journalists and Academy members to see the film. We used to not deal with the festival like they were a major player, but over the years they have gained real respect. They take great care in presentation, and filmmakers appreciate that.”

AFM hookup

Gaines takes pride in the fest’s attention to filmmakers, and believes the alliance with the American Film Market — in its second year — is “a natural extension of that. It really is an industry festival.”

So far, he says, the feedback has been supportive to the team-up, even if “it will take several years to chart the progress of its accomplishments.”

Whether the combo of AFI Fest and AFM can make for a bidding war hot spot a la Sundance or Toronto is what Gill calls “the great unanswered question.”

The big issue at hand is the geographic separation of AFM’s digs in Santa Monica and AFI’s at the ArcLight in Hollywood, as opposed to the centralized activity of Cannes or Berlin. “I suspect that’s going to be harder for them to pull off, but they’re headed in the right direction,” Gill says.

Gaines maintains that the distance is only a problem with traffic-addled Angelenos, while out-of-towners are grateful for the nonstop shuttle and private transportation system as well as the exclusive pass benefits for AFM sales agents, who are most predisposed to taking advantage of the two events. This year, 27 features will show at both events.

“The fact that (sales agents) can invite buyers to an audience screening rather than a market screening is incredibly helpful,” says Gaines. “It’s the contrasts, rather than the similarities, that we’re making the most of.”

AFI Fest programming director Nancy Collet already trumpets an advantage to the alliance on her end, namely in quicker response to film requests. “I did notice an increase in the interest of sales companies in terms of premiering their films with us, or willingness even to send us tapes,” she says. “And once we invite a film, there’s more of a likelihood that a larger group of talent will attend, or a party will be thrown.”

In addressing the ways a film festival confers respect, Gaines refers a lot to “matrices of success.” He cites a lot of factors: quality programming, premieres, hospitality shown filmmakers, celebrity appearances, press coverage, infrastructure and attendance. “The reality is that you should be addressing all of these things,” he says. “I always talk about the pursuit of progress, rather than perfection. And we can see progress year to year on this festival.”

L.A. Weekly film editor and Variety critic Scott Foundas, who has attended AFI Fest for 10 years, sees a festival going through growing pains. “They have been very good at finding films that have slipped through the cracks,” he notes, “but I still think it gets too hung up on the idea of having world and North American premieres, a syndrome endemic to a lot of festivals.”

He questions whether award-hopeful galas mean anything to the average festivalgoer, and believes AFI’s rep could be better secured by beefing up its discovery areas. “Nobody remembers what big Oscar-winning films premiered at Sundance, but everybody remembers that ‘sex, lies and videotape’ premiered there when nobody had heard of Steven Soderbergh.”

Gaines, however, thinks of the fest as a concentric ring of programs that allows festgoers of all stripes to find what they want and be happy about it.

“And then right in the middle you have the competitions, where there is the highest concentration of world premieres of new filmmakers. So you can flirt around the edges and then, depending on how consumed you are by the programming, burrow down into the middle.”

One thing that Gaines says he is most proud of is how distinctive AFI Fest has become in a movie city difficult to stand out in. “We’ve turned being in Los Angeles from our greatest bane to our greatest blessing.”

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