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.
Of their working relationship, Kuo notes, “Bob and I have been talking about films for ages, and from the day I started here, we’ve had regular conversations — sometimes daily conversations — about films, certainly during and after film festivals. There was a way, even before he came on staff, in which it almost felt like he was an additional programmer.”
“Our first conversations about this [job] really began almost at this time last year,” Koehler adds. “From my end, I just wanted to get much more involved with programming. Not programming film series, which I’ve been doing, or coming up with a juicy little wish list and then phoning it off to the folks who really do the spade work in terms of getting the films. What I wanted to do was blend the conceptual side of it with the spade work.”
Koehler’s appointment was not without its share of raised eyebrows. Writing about the hire last April, Cinematical blogger Peter Martin (himself a former AFI Fest employee) deemed it an “odd move” while quoting at length from a Koehler essay in the Canadian film quarterly Cinema Scope that chided North American festival programmers for their laziness and herd mentality: “The essence of interesting, vital festival programming is an intelligent argument for a certain kind of cinema — this kind, not that kind.” With his new job, Martin surmised, Koehler would get a chance “to put his money where his mouth is.”
Implicit in Martin’s provocation was the bane of every film programmer’s existence: how to challenge an audience without alienating them? How, in Koehler’s case, for a passionate champion of radical and avant-garde filmmaking (his “certain kind of cinema” in a nutshell) to program a festival with movies that Joe the Plumber might also want to see? As Koehler himself puts it, it all comes down to “finding a balance of tendencies, of kinds of films. You certainly want to avoid both a vanilla drift toward the middle on the one hand, and you also want to avoid an ideological purity that veers on the obnoxious on the other.”
To these eyes, this year’s AFI Fest lineup walks that tightrope ably, with the audience-pleasing likes of Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Robert De Niro road movie Everybody’s Fine at one end of the spectrum and the more rigorous likes of Pedro Costa’s black-and-white anticoncert film, Ne Change Rien (see related story) at the other. In-between, an assortment of Oscar bait, political documentaries, world cinema discoveries and midnight movies fill out the bill. “Even if we wanted films X, Y and Z, sometimes we didn’t invite them because they would have tipped the program too much in one direction or another,” says Kuo. “At the same time, it’s not a popularity contest either.”
Oh, really? Don’t tell The New York Times. Included in AFI Fest are exactly half of the 28 films recently screened at the New York Film Festival (where this critic serves on the selection committee) — a selection lambasted by Times critic A.O. Scott as overly grim and esoteric in an October 6 editorial memorably titled “Wallowing in Misery for Art’s Sake.” “What was once a wide and crowded middle ground between popular taste and high art has eroded,” Scott opined, while marshaling such unlikely evidence as Pedro Almodóvar’s comic melodrama Broken Embraces and Michael Haneke’s Cannes-winning The White Ribbon — two of the New York festival’s most heavily attended attractions — to support his claim.
To be fair, there hasn’t exactly been a surplus of sparkling cinematic farces on the festival circuit this year, which may say more about the state of the world (which art, after all, is supposed to reflect) than about the specifics of festival programming. Even Juno director Jason Reitman’s lauded Up in the Air, one of the highlights of this year’s Telluride and Toronto festivals, is a “comedy” about unemployment and existential dread, while Sundance and Toronto Audience Award winner Precious (also screening at AFI Fest) is a grueling portrait of an obese, illiterate, physically and sexually abused teenager coming of age in Harlem in the 1980s. Still, Koehler understandably chafes at the suggestion that festival programmers intentionally favor “obscure” or “difficult” films.
“I honestly never look at it that way,” he says. “I just think about the films that I like, the filmmakers who I love, and then I ask, ‘Well, have they shown very much in Los Angeles?’ Philippe Grandrieux [director of AFI Fest selection A Lake] has never shown in Los Angeles — okay, that’s wrong. That has to be redressed. This city is frankly so far behind in catching up with so many filmmakers who matter right now. You could have a 300-film festival of works by important filmmakers who have almost never shown in Los Angeles. You could do that easily. You could do that in your sleep.”
“Some of these films are challenging — I’m not going to say that they aren’t,” counters Kuo. “But I think in the context of a film festival, you should have a range of everything, from films that are accessible to a broad audience all the way to those that push the audience to some other end. When you’ve attended a festival like the BAFICI in Buenos Aires and you see some of these obscure, challenging films and the house is completely packed with 600 or 700 people, you realize it’s possible. So why not here in Los Angeles? I don’t expect everyone who goes in to say, ‘Oh, that was a wonderful film,’ but I hope they walk out and say, ‘Well, I didn’t totally get that, but I wonder why that film was in the program and what its place is in the canon.’ At the end of the day, it’s a leap of faith. If we’re doing it right and people come back year after year, hopefully their trust and their loyalty in us grow.”
There’s one subject, I find, on which Koehler and Kuo see completely eye to eye. At a time when so many festivals (including, increasingly, the summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival in Westwood) chase after world or U.S. premieres of studio films and starry American indies, they have resolved to bring L.A. audiences the best available films, regardless of where they may have shown before. (To that end, Koehler and Kuo this year lifted a rule that had previously limited the festival’s “New Lights” competition section to U.S. premieres.)
“I took it from my own perspective of living in Los Angeles, reading about certain films endlessly and then coming to the end of the year, when critics are putting out ‘10 best’ lists and year-end roundups, and thinking, ‘I haven’t seen over half of these films. When are they going to play in L.A.?’ ” Kuo says. “When Bob came on, we just decided we should become a festival of festivals. It’s what Toronto used to be, but they’ve now become more of a market festival that debuts new product. Especially in Los Angeles, it makes sense that we would be a yearbook of the year prior.”
“In some ways, it’s simply a return to the beginning of Los Angeles film festivals, with Filmex, which was also a festival of festivals,” Koehler says of AFI Fest’s ancestral predecessor, whose inaugural 1971 edition likewise took place at Grauman’s Chinese.
“Hopefully, we end up at the end of the year with the films that are essential to see,” Kuo concludes. “So, if you haven’t seen these films, run, don’t walk.”