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They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but what about a free film festival? “We were looking to make a bold move,” says AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo. She wasn’t kidding: The American Film Institute’s decision to transform its venerable fall film showcase (October 30-November 7) from a paid event into a gratis one is an unprecedented gesture for a festival of this size and stature. “Since last year, the conversation among indie distributors and festival programmers has been, ‘Is the sky falling?’ ” Kuo continues, on a recent afternoon at the festival’s rustic office (dubbed the “manor house”) on AFI’s Hollywood campus. “It was time to turn the conversation around, to do something somewhat audacious, and to get people excited about indie film.”
Indeed, depending on where you stand, AFI’s free festival arrives at one of the best or one of the worst moments for the health of “indie” movies — for the purposes of this discussion, anything not released under the banner of a major studio. On the one hand, thanks to the explosion of the DVD market and the proliferation of Web-based and on-demand viewing streams, audiences now have greater access to more films than at any other time in history. On the other hand, an overcrowded marketplace for “art house” movies, coupled with a recessing economy, has left everyone from exhibitors and distributors to festivals themselves struggling to stay in business. The past year alone saw the shuttering or dramatic downsizing of many of the studio-owned specialty divisions (Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent, et al.) that had sought to replicate the golden touch of Miramax in its 1990s heyday, while the ether has percolated with reports of Harvey Weinstein’s own imminent demise. The recent Toronto International Film Festival — traditionally a seller’s market — was as slow on wheeling and dealing as real estate offices in San Bernardino. Then, just as Toronto was drawing to a close, word arrived that Las Vegas’ decade-old Cinevegas festival — widely considered a rising star among U.S. fests — would be taking an indefinite hiatus due to economic factors.
As far back as January, Kuo tells me, she and other AFI executives began discussing their own festival’s bottom line and the challenges of meeting it in a recession year. “We were uncertain as to what was going to be the state of sponsorship and how individuals were going to be feeling the economic crunch,” she says, noting that AFI Fest, like most U.S. festivals, has traditionally been budgeted on a combination of corporate sponsorship and projected ticket sales. So Kuo and her colleagues began to think about removing one variable from that equation. At the time, three of AFI Fest’s longtime corporate partners — Audi, Absolut and Stella Artois — had already pledged their support for the 2009 edition. “We knew we had them,” says Kuo, “and the idea was floated that if we know we have this amount of money, what about doing this size of festival and not worrying about what kind of revenue we’re going to get?” That in turn relieved anxiety about possibly going into the red. Still, the question remained: What if people can’t afford to come to a film festival this year? Kuo posed the matter to a colleague, Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer. “And his response was, ‘Well, make it free and then they’ll all come.’ ”
The result is a sleeker, smaller AFI Fest (67 feature films, down from a little more than 100 last year) that, one week before opening night, had already sold out advance tickets to all but two screenings — although Kuo was quick to note that there will be a same-day standby line for all movies. “We don’t want anyone to be discouraged. Fifteen percent of people [who reserve advance tickets] don’t show up,” she says. (For the deep-pocketed, a $500 “Patron Pass” guaranteeing admission to all festival screenings is also on sale.)
If free screenings are the biggest news at the festival this year, they’re far from the only change. After being based since 2002 in the ArcLight complex at Sunset and Vine, AFI Fest will this year spend seven days in the Grauman’s Chinese and adjacent Mann Chinese 6 theater at Hollywood & Highland, before moving to Santa Monica for a final weekend at the Monica 4-Plex. Following on last year’s successful retrospective of French director Arnaud Desplechin, staged in tandem with LACMA, the festival has opened its arms even further to L.A.’s year-round specialized film venues, offering a slate of screenings presented in partnership with REDCAT and Los Angeles Filmforum. In addition, Kuo has a new partner in the form of programming director Robert Koehler, a veteran Los Angeles film critic. Koehler joined the AFI Fest team this past spring in the latest move by Kuo (who came aboard in 2007) to bring new blood into a programming department that had largely atrophied under the festival’s previous leadership. And, in person, Koehler comes across very much like the yang to Kuo’s yin — excitable where she is a voice of calm, hyperbolic where she prefers understatement.
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