AFI Fest Berth Can Be a Mixed Bag for Oscar Hopefuls

Will this year's big premieres launch into the season or crash on the rocks like so many before them?

The Big Short
Courtesy of Paramount

With early November being prime real estate for the annual movie awards season, you might think the AFI Fest would be a vital springboard into the Oscar race. But the blunt truth is that the event hasn’t been much of a lucky charm.

Over the past decade, films that have gone to the fest looking to establish a wave of support, only to more or less crash on the rocks, include Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby,” Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs,” Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” and “Love & Other Drugs,” Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” Sacha Gervasi’s “Hitchcock,” John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” and J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” to name a few.

This year, the festival — which kicks off Nov. 5 — boasts three compelling world premieres in opening night, centerpiece and closing night slots, respectively: Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea,” Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” and Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.” But the question, given the fest’s history, is whether they’ll prove to be pretenders in the Oscar race like so many before them.

It’s not that AFI hasn’t had its share of top contenders, mind you. “Juno,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” “The Artist,” “Life of Pi,” “Nebraska” and “Selma” all made a stop there. Others have landed as secret screenings, like “The Fighter” in 2010 and “American Sniper” in 2014. But most of those films were holdovers from festival circuits that had already christened them Oscar contenders by the time they blew into town for another red carpet. For some, it’s more important to stir talk elsewhere first; even “Lincoln” couldn’t stick to its original world premiere plans, opting for a sudden secret screening bow at the New York Film Festival a few weeks prior to its scheduled AFI date in 2012.

AFI Fest’s placement on the calendar inevitably leads to movies being viewed through the prism of awards, and that can often be a hindrance, insiders say. Filmmakers may want that kind of splashy platform to premiere their work, but if you don’t have the goods, you run the risk of being exposed. “Saying ‘yes’ is half the battle in this town, but saying ‘no,’ suddenly you’re the negative voice in the room,” one awards consultant told me. “You’re the one saying, ‘I don’t believe in your film.’ ”

So why have so many awards season misfires run the risk? One reason is affordability. It’s much cheaper to ride the festival’s coattails for a Los Angeles premiere than to drop a few hundred grand for the usual Westwood Village or Chinese Theater song and dance. “AFI provides a launchpad with built-in press, built-in parties, built-in red carpets, and they do the work,” another consultant said. “It’s a workload that’s taken off your team.”

But the festival can be good for other opportunities as well. Acting tributes have been bestowed upon Penelope Cruz (“Volver”), Viggo Mortensen (“The Road”), Christopher Plummer (“The Last Station”) and Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”), to varying awards effect. Master classes and public forums centered around films like “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Flight” and “Birdman” have also been featured.

This year, tributes are set for “45 Years” stars Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling (who won acting prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in February), while discussions have been lined up for films like “The Martian,” “Suffragette” and “Youth.”

With the American Cinematheque’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award presentation and the Academy’s Governors Awards typically sandwiching the event, AFI Fest has ultimately become part of a log-jammed corridor, one more opportunity to get talent out there on the circuit for face time and flash bulbs. “Sometimes people know their movies aren’t awards movies,” a consultant said, “but if they’re opening in this time frame, they just want it to be in the conversation.”