In 2009, in an attempt to redefine its annual AFI Film Festival aesthetically, geographically and economically, as a maverick event serving both mainstream and art-film audiences, the American Film Institute made three headline-grabbing changes: Artistic director Rose Kuo hired the notably individualist film critic Robert Koehler as programming director; the fest moved from the relatively contained ArcLight to Hollywood Boulevard's Chinese Theatre, where a built-in audience of tourists is ever-present to receive red carpets as circus spectacle; and, most boldly, it faced the economic downturn head-on by leveraging the power of corporate sponsors to offer most tickets to most films for free.
Flash-forward one year: Both Koehler and Kuo are gone, having departed AFI as part of a mass exodus in January. (Kuo is now heading the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where she works with former Weekly film critic Scott Foundas.) In a conversation on AFI's campus before the start of the 2010 festival, Lane Kneedler and Jacqueline Lyanga, the two longtime AFI programming staffers promoted to replace Koehler and Kuo, did their best to downplay the administrative turnover.
"I don't think there's going to be a ton of huge changes," Kneedler said. "Jacqueline and I have actually been here at the festival for five years already, and we've been actively shaping the programming in a lot of ways for years."
The films will again unspool on Hollywood Boulevard, and thanks to returning sponsor Audi, most screenings will again be free. (As the festival's press releases remind, "The official festival name is 'AFI FEST 2010 presented by Audi' and should be referred to as such at least once within a story." Quota reached.)
One highly symbolic change: The fest is doing away with jury prizes for all feature-length films. Instead, AFI audiences will vote on winners in each of the four competitive sections.
It's all part of an effort to go beyond the free-tickets model in finding ways to make the film festival accessible to an untapped audience.
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"Jacqueline and I are a bit younger than some of the people who have been running the festival in the past, so we're bringing a fresher perspective, and really trying to bring filmmakers that are pushing boundaries a bit more," said Kneedler, who is 33. This focus on emerging visions is evident in selections like Mike Ott's LiTTLEROCK (see Art feature), the bat-shit-wonderful killer-tire sci-fi Rubber and Kitao Sakurai's Aardvark, a jujitsu revenge flick starring a blind nonactor.
Lyanga stresses AFI's youth-seeking is about long-term self-preservation: "Ensuring that there's another generation of cinephiles is important to us — that we're bringing in teenagers and people in their 20s to the festival, to make sure that it's not just [those] who remember when auteur theory came about."
Yet, the lineup hardly excludes the icons of the mature cinephile: Film Socialisme, the latest (and allegedly last) film by the living filmmaker most associated with auteur theory, Jean-Luc Godard, as well as 2010 Cannes Palme D'or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and new films by international masters, including Werner Herzog, Abbas Kiarostami and Takashi Miike. Last year in these pages, Koehler and Kuo described AFI as "a festival of festivals," a label embraced by Kneedler and Lyanga.
"That's what's exciting for us, that we can provide this showcase going into the end of the year," Lyanga said. "People want to see Uncle Boonmee, they've been waiting all year to see it. All this anticipation builds throughout the year, and then we bring the titles to Los Angeles."