The days leading up to film festivals great and small are supposed to be occupied by minutiae and mundanities, such as making sure that no films (or filmmakers) have gone missing in transit, or planning the seating arrangements for official festival dinners, or verifying that the red carpet is indeed red. By no means, with barely a week to go before opening night, are you supposed to first be searching for an opening-night film. And yet, that’s exactly what the organizers of this year’s AFI Fest found themselves doing after Paramount Pictures, distributor of the festival’s long-planned curtain-raiser, the Jamie Foxx–Robert Downey Jr. drama The Soloist, called off the nuptials eight days before its October 30 premiere.
Consider it a far more amusing object lesson in movie-industry blow-back and star egos run amuck than anything offered by Downey’s wan summer blockbuster, Tropic Thunder. The potential trouble for AFI Fest actually began to brew a few days before the official Soloist cancellation, when Paramount announced it was postponing the commercial release of the film — heretofore tub-thumped as a potential awards-season heavyweight — from November of this year to March of 2009. Officially, this decision (as first reported by the redoubtable Nikki Finke) was part of an overall restructuring initiative by the studio, which issued an October 15 press release stating that it was reducing its annual output of films to no more than 20 in order “to more effectively compete in the changing marketplace.” As for the fact that The Soloist happened to be one of several upcoming Paramount releases co-produced by DreamWorks, the Steven Spielberg–Jeffrey Katzenberg–David Geffen production outfit that, mere days earlier, had officially terminated its rocky three-year marriage to the studio? Well, officially, that was a mere coincidence.
Once again giving credence to screenwriter William Goldman’s enduring maxim that, in Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything,” CAA — the agency that represents Foxx, Downey and The Soloist director Joe Wright — told Variety it had been “blind-sided” by news of the release-date shuffle. Meanwhile, Paramount held firm, insisting that The Soloist would play AFI Fest as originally scheduled, despite ever more persistent rumors that the film’s key talent might boycott the screening in protest. (Why? Because they want their shot at Oscar, damn it!) Then, on October 22, another Paramount/DreamWorks press release made it official: “Due to the change in The Soloist release date, we unfortunately had to withdraw from the AFI Fest,” with the obligatory caveat that both companies remain “very proud of the film.”
For a moment, the festival’s opening night seemed in doubt. But a mere 24 hours later, Doubt had saved the day. The December Miramax Films release, directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Tony-winning play about a sexual-abuse scandal in a New York Catholic school, agreed to pinch-hit for The Soloist. The announcement came complete with its own carefully worded press release explaining that Shanley’s film would screen in an “unfinished” version — a Beltway-worthy industry buzzword designed to give filmmakers an escape clause from potentially negative reviews (“But it isn’t finished yet!”). This, despite a Variety article published that same day (and ironically titled “Oscar Contenders Skip Festival Route”) in which Miramax president Daniel Battsek told reporter Adam Dawtrey that Doubt had been “finished” earlier this month. Never mind the more burning question: Which of these rival studios will, when all is said and done, get stuck with the bill for the opening-night party?
In a season that has already seen its fair share of ink spilled about the mostly one-sided pissing contest between producers Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin over the delivery date of another would-be Oscar baby, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader, such teapot tempests make undeniably entertaining fodder. But lost somewhere in the Soloist hullabaloo has been the fact that the real value of any festival is measured not by, but, rather, in-between opening and closing night — when the red carpet is rolled up, the fair-weather festival goers (a.k.a. agents, executives and other assorted scene-makers) recede into the background and the real movie lovers come to the fore. And on that account, this year’s AFI Fest can be deemed a triumph even before the first foot of film has been exposed to a projector’s bulb.
Among the just more than 100 feature-length films scheduled to unspool over the next 10 days (more than 40 of which are reviewed in the pages that follow), local audiences will have their first chance to see Cannes prizewinners The Class, Gomorrah, Che, Hunger and Tulpan alongside Cannes should’ve-been-prizewinners Waltz With Bashir and The Headless Woman, plus numerous highlights from the recent Telluride, Toronto and Venice festivals (all of them making their Los Angeles premieres). As for the usual potluck assortment of world-premiere American indies, they’re here too (though, tellingly, most of their producers and/or publicists refused to make them available for advance review), but they’re no longer the semidelusional focus of AFI Fest, whose position on the festival calendar — two months after Toronto and two before Sundance — makes it all but impossible to “discover” anything that doesn’t come from some bigger festival’s reject pile. Likewise, after a long period in which the festival programmers appeared actively hostile to any truly original or challenging world cinema (the acclaimed Romanian gallows comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was one of several inexplicable rejects in recent years), they seem to have overcome the notion that local moviegoers will shrivel up and die at the mere scent of art.
The almost overnight turnaround at AFI has largely been the achievement of one woman, Rose Kuo, now entering her second year as the festival’s artistic director. It’s Kuo who has been visible on the international festival circuit in a way that her recent predecessors (who behaved rather like strange subterranean creatures afraid of their own shadows) never were. And it’s Kuo, more than any single other force within the AFI organization, who has been willing to gamble on the intelligence and eclectic tastes of Los Angeles moviegoers, which this year extends to the festival’s themed sidebars on new films from Argentina and Kazakhstan, as well as the decision to partner with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a nearly complete retrospective of French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin — all of which would have been unthinkable under the former AFI Fest regime.
Nor have Kuo’s efforts gone unnoticed where it really counts: Attendance is stronger than ever, as is the festival’s overseas reputation. (One source close to AFI Fest confides to me that certain international sales companies that, only a few years ago, wouldn’t answer the festival’s requests for films are now the ones picking up the phone and placing the calls.) Indeed, the only trick that seems beyond Kuo’s considerable talents is programming any festival attraction for the evening of Tuesday, November 4 that can rival the electrifying picture show sure to be taking shape on America’s television screens. But there’s no doubt (or Doubt) about it: After a decade in the doldrums — and several years in the shadow of the summer’s similarly rejuvenated Los Angeles Film Festival — AFI Fest is, at last, the other world-class film festival our city deserves.