AFI: Every night a gala

Fest expands profile to include nine categories of pics

Eight red-carpet galas. A roundtable with Hollywood young guns Jesse Eisenberg, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. A beginner’s bootcamp on the importance of 3D. A chat with Halle Berry on acting. A sit-down with Aaron Sorkin on cinema’s legacy.

This year’s all-star AFI Fest will also serve up renowned, award-winning filmmaker and AFI alum David Lynch, the festival’s first guest artistic director. Lynch credits AFI for “putting me on the map and giving me the opportunity and money to make my first feature film, ‘Eraserhead.’ ” The org will screen that 1976 sci-fi classic and, in a special sidebar program, the director will screen the five films that most influenced him: Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” and Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd.”

Tonight’s opening night gala kicks off with the world premiere of Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy “Love & Other Drugs” starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, and closes Nov. 11 with Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” starring Natalie Portman. Other gala selections include George Hickenlooper’s biopic “Casino Jack” and Derek Cianfrance’s drama “Blue Valentine.”

The 97 screenings — 66 features and 31 shorts from 31 countries — will be programmed across the fest’s nine categories: Gala/Tribute, Special Screening, Short Film and World Cinema, plus the new Alt/Art, Young Americans, New Auteurs, Breakthrough and Midnight. The org will continue its successful “See a Film on Us!” program, offering the public free tickets to all screenings and galas at its four venues — Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Mann Chinese 6 theaters, the Egyptian and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

The heart of the eight-day programming event remains World Cinema, which programs works from such respected directors as Takashi Miike (“13 Assassins”) and Abbas Kiarostami (“Certified Copy”).

“We pride ourselves on being the showcase for the big names; the world’s greatest filmmakers come and present their films in Los Angeles,” says associate director of programming Lane Kneedler.

Other notables in that section include Thomas Vinterberg’s drama “Submarino” and Ji-woon Kim’s thriller “I Saw the Devil.”

There’s one new twist. “We now have some documentaries in World Cinema,” points out fest director Jacqueline Lyanga, who, like Kneedler, was appointed to her respective post in January of this year.

“There is such innovation happening in documentary cinema,” Lyanga explains. “There is so much incorporation of narrative elements in documentaries and then documentary elements in narrative cinema. But it’s all just cinema.”

Among the docs included are Ken Wardrop’s “His & Hers,” a story of life’s journey with the opposite sex, and “Precious Life,” directed by Shlomi Eldar, a film that chronicles the struggle of an Israeli pediatrician and a Palestinian mother to get treatment for her child.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the World Cinema selections this year,” Kneedler adds. “But it’s something we’ve been shaping, bringing it to the forefront of our programming when we roll out our announcements of films.”

One of the new programming sections, Alt/Art, deals with films concerning the artistic process and the struggle for freedom of expression.

“Our goal was to bring more experimental films like Pip Chodorov’s ‘Free Radicals’ (a U.S. premiere) into the mix. It’s a section that we hope to grow,” Lyanga explains.

“These films deal with music, painting and filmmaking,” Kneedler adds.

Over the next few years, both foresee that such films will find their home in the Alt/Art section.

Also making its 2010 debut is the Breakthrough selections. Five films will compete for a $5,000 cash prize.

“What we end up doing with a lot of our festival programming is curating films from other festivals. And because we’re at the end of the year, we get to show a lot of award winners from Cannes, Berlin and Sundance,” Kneedler explains. “But we wanted to encourage those filmmakers who thought that they might not otherwise have a place in the AFI Fest to send their films to us. So we created Breakthrough, which selects films solely from this submission process.”

“We’re weren’t tracking these films, didn’t know about them. They kind of rose to the top in terms of peoples’ interest in them and ratings,” he adds. “And they found themselves in this section. It’s an opportunity for us to support independent filmmakers.”

The 31 entries in the Short Film slot compete for the Grand Jury Prize for live action short film and animated short film, both of which are recognized as qualifiers for the annual Academy Awards.

“We are one of the few Academy Award accredited festivals for short film — that means that the Grand Jury Prize winner for short film live action and short film animated automatically becomes eligible for the Academy Award,” Kneedler says. “It doesn’t have to do any sort of theatrical run beyond winning an award at the AFI Fest. We’ll have a jury for that section, the only juried section for the festival.”

Out of the success of the 2009 free-ticket imitative comes this year’s other newbie, Midnight, a showcase of comedy and horror films. Last year’s free tickets proved a good testing ground for this sidebar.

“From a programming point of view the free-ticket imitative is fantastic,” Kneedler observes. “We found that people were willing to come out for films in the middle of the afternoon. So we did a couple of movies at midnight to get the temperature of the audience and they responded enthusiastically.”

Kneedler and Lyanga are launching Midnight with three films: Ivan Engler’s sci-fi mystery “Cargo,” Guillem Morales’ mystery “Julia’s Eyes” and Thomas Cappelen Malling’s action comedy “Norwegian Ninja.”

“It’s a nice mix. It’s not all horror films,” Kneedler points out.

Lyanga says she believes that in this tough economy the AFI free-ticket policy gives auds the opportunity to take a chance on films they wouldn’t otherwise see.

“We’ve been riskier with our programming, incorporating edgier, genre oriented films,” she says. “We have looked at 3,000 films for this festival. We are not focused on, will it sell tickets? We’re focused on, is this an interesting film people should see?”