AFI brings trophy premieres to awards season

High-profile debuts 'J. Edgar,' 'Tintin' bookend Hollywood fest

The AFI Fest, which starts tonight in Hollywood, has become as much about awards season as it is about bringing new voices to the city, and it’s not simply a matter of serendipitous timing.

Although it takes place months after the Venice-Toronto-Telluride trifecta, the fest has been able to program high-profile titles that play for an industry audience in its hometown.

“There’s something that’s unique about coming to a festival that’s set in Los Angeles,” said AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga. “Not everyone can travel to Cannes and Berlin and South by Southwest. Oftentimes, the industry is catching up as much as the audience is in November.”

Two of this year’s premieres — “J. Edgar” and the 3-D “The Adventures of Tintin,” both of which will debut at Grauman’s Chinese — provide trophy-sized bookends to a schedule of films in the awards-season conversation. The fest, which runs through Nov. 10, takes place at the Egyptian Theater, Hollywood and Highland and the Hollywood Roosevelt. “The Artist” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” both of which premiered in Cannes, will screen, as will “My Week With Marilyn,” which premiered at the New York Film Festival, and “Shame,” which debuted at Venice.

“The importance of festivals is growing, especially if you’re a festival that has the ability to really help to market and promote a film and promote filmmakers,” Lyanga explained.

While many fests have had trouble attracting high-quality narrative films, AFI Fest has relaxed its premiere requirements in order to broaden the types of films that are in its program.

“If a film is going to play in the New York Film Festival, it’s not really going to have that much of an impact on our audiences in Los Angeles,” said associate director of programming Lane Kneedler. “We’ve let go of trying to get premieres and instead just focus on showing the best films we can.”

This year the festival will again partner with the American Film Market, which takes place Nov. 2-9 in Santa Monica. Not only does the relationship offer expanded marketing opportunities and a more international audience, it provides a market tie-in.

“A huge portion of our audience is made up of industry — that provides a number of opportunities for filmmakers,” Lyanga said. “We sometimes field calls from agents or managers and producers after they’ve seen a film, especially in our Young Americans or New Auteurs sections, looking for new talent.”

The partnership, as well as having director Pedro Almodovar as guest artistic director, dovetails nicely into AFI’s promotion of world cinema, which highlights the influence American filmmakers have on other countries and vice versa. Several Academy foreign-language film submissions will screen at the festival, including Germany’s “Pina,” Iran’s “A Separation,” Mexico’s “Miss Bala” and Hungary’s “The Turin Horse.”

“Miss Bala” director and AFI Conservatory graduate Gerardo Naranjo says being accepted to the festival felt like the best place to showcase the film.

“There is no better place to go and promote a movie. I feel somehow like being home,” Naranjo said.

However, the industry isn’t the festival’s sole focus. Two years ago, AFI began offering free tickets to the public, sending a clear message about its commitment to making filmgoing a priority beyond the boundaries of the industry.