Organizers knock down pay wall

One of the silent challenges of AFI Fest last year — amid the crashing economies of 2008 — was that the event’s artistic director, Rose Kuo, found herself wondering early and often what sort of festival, if any, she might be directing in 2009. The situation looked even bleaker in January. Her colleagues in Sundance, Rotterdam and Berlin were openly worried.

Even so, AFI Fest was in a strong position, with the vast majority of its budget generated through sponsorships: “Audi, Stella Artois, Absolut and other key sponsors had already committed,” she says. “We knew we had a robust budget, (but) we were forced to consider that most people might not be able to afford a movie ticket, much less a festival pass.”

The question arose, amid conversations with her counterparts in Berlin and later Telluride: Why not give tickets away?

“I resisted,” Kuo recalls. ” ‘That means it’ll be a smaller festival,’ I told people, ‘Fewer films, fewer days.’ Yet the words were no sooner out of my mouth than it hit me, ‘That’s exactly why we should do it.'” She gives great credit to AFI Fest’s CEO, Bob Gazzale, “who needed less than a nanosecond to say, ‘Great idea!'”

The concept, under the rubric “See a Film on Us,” caught on like wildfire, giving new meaning to the event’s nonprofit status. Within hours of being made available online, advance tickets for more than half the films were reserved, even those screening in the middle of a weekday.

“I hasten to emphasize,” Kuo adds with a smile, sitting closer to this reporter’s microphone to make sure audiences get this message, too: “Only the ‘advance’ tickets are gone. ‘Same day’ tickets are still available! If there’s a movie you want to see, show up. There’s a very strong chance you’ll get in.”

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