At each of the Gala screenings at this year’s AFI Fest presented by Audi, audiences will see upcoming features with some of the biggest American stars, from Angelina Jolie Pitt to Will Smith. What they will not see, however, is the standard issue Hollywood product — genre films, romantic comedies — the sort of thing that occupies many of these actors between personal projects and event films. Instead, they’ll watch a trio of dramas that address issues of social importance that have risen to the forefront of our national attention.
In “Concussion,” from writer-director Peter Landesman, Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, who took on the National Football League over its failure to address the growing number of players with football-related brain trauma. In Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale play financial observers who predicted the housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s. Pitt is also featured in “By the Sea” opposite wife Jolie Pitt, who directed this 1970s-era look at a marriage on the rocks.
This sobering trio is indicative of both changing tastes in moviegoers as the summer blockbusters fall away to the autumn and winter slates, and the festival programmers’ commitment to showcase what they believe to be outstanding new films.
“As we move into the fall and awards season, you feel the audience getting hungry for more substantial films,” says AFI Fest associate director of programming Lane Kneedler. “Angelina Jolie Pitt’s film really resonated with us because she’s clearly influenced by European auteurs and cinema of the 1970s.”
But as AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga says, “What you see reflected (in the Gala screenings) is really an appetite for the kind of films that audience crave year-round.”
What audiences seeking cinematic substance will find in the three gala films are features that address, at their core, subjects that impact the current American experience.
“The plot of ‘Concussion’ is one of the most important issues of our day,” says Landesman. “It’s on the front pages of newspapers everywhere.”
For Jeremy Kleiner, producer of “The Big Short,” the inclusion of the film in the Gala screenings provides viewers the chance to form an opinion on “a truly seismic and international event. And we are still living this — we know that millions of people were affected by it, yet the ‘how’ and ‘why’ is not often talked about.”
All three films seek to correct that situation on their respective concerns, and in doing so, present what Landesman describes as “what it is to be an American.”