As with many festivals this year, the AFI Fest, presented by Audi, will unspool virtually, but in its most important aspect, the celebration of cinematic art
is unchanged.

“How we get to it is a lot different,” says Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI Fest, running Oct. 15-22. “But the end product is very much what the festival has always been. People are getting excited about the program.”

The AFI film festival can be guaranteed to bring highly anticipated fare to eager audiences. This year’s special presentations include world premieres such as opening-night film “I’m Your Woman,” a thriller starring Rachel Brosnahan directed by Julia Hart; Kelly Oxford’s “Pink Skies Ahead”; parts one and two of Matt Tyrnauer’s four-part deep dig into “The Reagans”; drama “Really Love” from helmer Angel Kristi Williams; vibrant coming-of-age story “She Paradise” from Maya Cozier; and Lisa Rovner’s doc about the women who helped shape electronic music, “Sisters With Transistors,” featuring Laurie Anderson.

“It’s just a really incredible story,” says Sarah Harris, AFI Fest director of programming, about “Pink Skies Ahead.” “A lot of it talks about mental health, and approaches it in a way that I think a lot of films haven’t been able to do before.”

Harris points out that the festival is able to showcase a film such as “Pink Skies Ahead,” which hasn’t been sold yet. “It’s an exciting opportunity for them to be a special presentation, and finally get their film out in the world after it was supposed to premiere earlier this year.”

Of the 125 films confirmed for the AFI Fest, 53% are directed by women, 39% directed by BIPOC and 17% directed by LGBTQ-plus artists.
“We’ve always been supportive of new voices, and it’s in the program — the diversity numbers are there because the voices are there,” Harris says. “I don’t think that is it is trying to find a balance, but there are so many interesting stories and viewpoints to see. I’m very proud of our of these numbers. It takes a little extra digging; we are willing to dig deep for these films.”

AFI is already an old hand at virtual festivals, having hosted AFI Docs in June, at which its viewing audience doubled, and the audience “attended” from every state in the U.S.

And because it’s online, Lumpkin says the festival has “100% participation” from all the filmmakers scheduled for talks, including tributes to Kirby Dick, Mira Nair, Rita Moreno and Sofia Coppola.

“The fact that that it doesn’t mean a trip to Hollywood to participate in the festival really opens up access,” says Lumpkin.

Other treats on the slate include animated Toronto Intl. Film Festival hit “Wolfwalkers,” Anthony Hopkins in “The Father,”  Werner Herzog’s “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” Venice festival buzz title “Apples,” Switzerland’s Oscar hopeful ‘My Little Sister,” Riz Ahmed- starrer “The Sound of Metal,” Mexico’s “New Order,” Danish gangster thriller ‘Wildland,” and docs including Berlin player “The American Sector,” “Downstream to Kinshasha” and festival circuit hit “Notturno.”

Closing night film is Errol Morris’ “My Psychedelic Love Story,” which related how LSD guru Timothy Leary turned from counterculture hero into a government narc.

All in all, 35 countries are repped in the festival, with 16 U.S. premieres.

“What’s also great, with the virtual festival aspect, is that it really kind of evens the playing field for filmmakers,” Harris says. “In this kind of weird pandemic world, this is an opportunity for some of these smaller films to gain the same attention. These are incredibly strong films and filmmakers.”