Resuming its traditional post as the last stand of the fall festival season, the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest will return to its traditional home at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood, its first in-person fest since 2019. Per AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, the event will re-enter the scene with its sense of purpose intact.
“AFI Fest was created to fulfil a need, and that need seems to change every year, certainly during a global pandemic,” Gazzale says. “And what we determined early was that the goal of AFI this year was to manifest what we learned during the pandemic: that experiencing life with others is a joy. To laugh together, to experience a jump scare, to experience a story well told has always proven a tonic for dark times.”
Perhaps appropriately considering that mantra, the fest’s marquee lineup is heavy on festival favorites, musicals and crowd-pleasers.
Running from Nov. 10-14, AFI Fest opens with the world premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick … Boom,” and also features world premieres of Benjamin Cleary’s Mahershala Ali-starrer “Swan Song,” Halle Berry’s directorial debut, “Bruised,” and animated sequel “Sing 2.” Red carpet gala screenings of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” and Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “King Richard” are also in the offing, as well as the world premiere of Tommy Oliver’s “Juice Wrld,” a documentary about the late rap star.
All in all, the fest will unspool 115 titles over its five-day span, with 48 of them features. Documentaries will make up a healthy chunk of the lineup (e.g. “Citizen Ashe,” “Julia” and Andrea Arnold’s “Cow”), as will international fare, including Iranian film “Hit the Road” and Norwegian Oscar hopeful “The Worst Person in the World.”
The festival will still be a hybrid event — with several features and panels, as well as the entire shorts program and the AFI Conservatory Showcase (a selection of thesis films from AFI students and graduates), all available to watch online — though the focus will be on the in-person screenings and events. The past two years’ worth of jockeying between physical and online festivals is something AFI has more experience with than most: Held in the spring, AFI’s sister nonfiction festival, AFI Docs, was one of the first film events to go entirely virtual at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The following fall’s AFI Fest was also an online-only event, while last June’s doc fest was a hybrid event, with most of the program online.
Now, says AFI Festivals director of programming Sarah Harris, “we’ve switched gears from what we did at AFI Docs, where we’re focusing now on what we can do theatrically, and then adding in elements for the online component. … We still want to incorporate some hybrid elements to accommodate those who can’t come back into the theater, because we know that there’s a comfort level, and people are still easing back into things.”
While the festival’s mission and focus have evolved over its 35 years, AFI remains one of the few constants on Los Angeles’ festival calendar, and since the demise of the L.A. Film Festival, it’s arguably the only major general audience festival left in the entertainment capital.
“Being such a long-running event, there’s a certain audience awareness that’s built into it,” Gazzale says of the festival’s longevity. “And so the industry knows and the public knows that this a place you can go. Also, we don’t consider our festival a travel destination event — the largest part of our audience comes from the Los Angeles region.”
Harris concurs, and notes that having a dedicated hub for deep film immersion and discussion right in the middle of Hollywood is rarer than it seems. “Curation isn’t just about ‘this movie is good,’ it’s about fostering the communication that happens in between, and I think AFI has been very successful at that,” she says. “It’s only five days, but we have almost 50 features in those five days, and there’s a lot of things to see and talk about. There are always screenings all over town, but you don’t have that celebration element in the same way.”