AFI Fest struggles to find its niche amid a shifting festival landscape

Sam Esmail at the premiere of "Leave the World Behind" to open AFI Fest at TCL Chinese Theatre on October 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images)
Director Sam Esmail at Wednesday's premiere of "Leave the World Behind" at TCL Chinese Theatre. (Michael Buckner / Variety via Getty Images)

The AFI Fest opened on Wednesday night with the world premiere of the suspenseful apocalyptic tale “Leave the World Behind,” adapted and directed by Sam Esmail. Though the film has an enviable cast that includes Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la and Mahershala Ali, none of them were in attendance at the TCL Chinese screening due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.

Esmail is a graduate of AFI’s directing program but had somehow never actually picked up his diploma. So before the film began, Bob Gazzale, president and CEO of the American Film Institute, presented it to Esmail. The moment didn't quite land with either the comedic lilt or emotional heft that it could have, and, much like the evening itself, it just kind of was.

AFI Fest has long made a benefit of coming at the end of the fall festival season, grabbing films that had premiered elsewhere while getting a boost from a few late-breaking new titles. Yet for the last few years, the festival has struggled to capture the right balance. It's been feeling less and less essential to the filmgoing life of Los Angeles, even as there are still plenty of worthwhile titles to see.

This is the first year for Todd Hitchcock as director of AFI Fest, which runs through Sunday. A longtime employee of the larger AFI organization, Hitchcock also oversees programming at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md. The festival’s new director of programming, Abbie Algar, is, like Hitchcock, also based out of AFI’s Maryland office. Some of the programming team is still based in Los Angeles.

In a recent phone interview, Hitchcock and Algar noted that while the centralized programming department streamlines the organization, it is not without its challenges.

“On the one hand, it's not our first rodeo and we're veteran AFI people,” said Hitchcock. “At the same time, of course we wanted to be attentive to the stature of AFI Fest, the way in which we're trying to have it play big for the city of Los Angeles.

“But of course, you can't over-engineer the thing,” Hitchcock added. “There's still trial and error and it's still a learning process. And we arrived where we did with our selection, which we're very happy with.”

Algar noted that it was a natural fit to pick up programming duties for AFI Fest along with the work she and Hitchcock were already doing for the AFI’s other programs, including the Silver.

“It makes a lot of sense for us to be doing both because we have that info and knowledge and intel," Algar said. "That’s not to say it's easy, but it certainly makes sense for the team to be working together like this.”

The behind-the-scenes changes come at a time when the festival scene in Los Angeles seems particularly in need of a dominant flagship event. Film Independent shut down the LA Film Festival in 2018 and Outfest has recently imploded amid financial difficulties and staff layoffs.

Festivals such as the genre-driven Beyond Fest and the TCM Classic Film Festival have become the dominant film events in the local calendar, finding enthusiastic audiences. Other local festivals such as the Animation Is Film festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival also serve faithful audiences.

Part of the struggle for festivals in Los Angeles may be simply that people have a wealth of options year-round, including splashy premieres and repertory rarities. Local showcases can struggle to break through.

“Are you bringing coal to Newcastle with a film festival in Los Angeles?" asked Gazzale. "The answer is no. We've proven it now over 37 years. Even during this horrible divide in our community, there is a real demand for people to go back to the theater and experience stories together — even in Los Angeles.”

With only four world premieres in the program, including Rob Reiner’s documentary “Albert Brooks: Defending My Life,” Gelila Bekele and Armani Ortiz’s profile “Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story” and Matthew Brown’s “Freud’s Last Session,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Hitchcock said the programming team had consciously decided not to get wrapped up in the pressure to find news-making firsts in the face of competition from other fall festivals like Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York.

Yet, as Hitchcock points out, even titles that are not having their world premieres at AFI Fest are still fresh for local audiences.

“These are brand new films,” said Hitchcock. “I know within the industry and within the festival bubble, people can forget. These are still very new films for the people who are going to be seeing them.”

Indeed, it is difficult to complain about something like the festival’s closing night selection, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” (in limited theatrical release Nov. 22 before streaming on Netflix Dec. 20), which has already played at Venice and New York. It will be screening in the iconic Chinese Theatre for quite possibly the only time.

“You'd be surprised what people find ways to complain about,” said Hitchcock with a laugh. “But yes, specifically, it is seeing ‘Maestro’ in that beautiful theater, that beautiful setting and on that giant screen. Hopefully people are recognizing it's not just [about] seeing it first.”

Greta Gerwig, director of the smash hit “Barbie,” is serving as guest artistic director of AFI Fest this year, a role previously filled by Pedro Almodóvar, Ava DuVernay, David Lynch and Agnès Varda. Gerwig selected five films to be shown during the festival and will be appearing in person to introduce a screening of Tim Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” at the Chinese Theatre, where the film first premiered in 1985, as well as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 romantic fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death.”

Across multiple sections, the festival will screen many titles that have premiered elsewhere throughout the year, including “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt” from Sundance, Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography” from Berlin, Catherine Breillat’s “Last Summer” and Steve McQueen’s “Occupied City” from Cannes, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s ”Evil Does Not Exist” from Venice and Minhal Baig’s “We Grown Now” and Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction” from Toronto. A screening of Jeff Nichols’ “The Bikeriders,” which premiered at Telluride, has grown in significance since the film recently shifted its release date to 2024.

“Where we are on the calendar, it makes sense for us to be kind of rounding up the best of the fests of the past year,” said Algar. “We were attending Toronto and still confirming films very close up to when we were locking the lineup. It was a little nerve-wracking, but I'm really glad that we did it because we have some really great titles that came out of that.

The festival is screening 20 of the films submitted for the Academy Award for international feature, including Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “About Dry Grasses,” Radu Jude’s “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World,” Aki Kurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves,” Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters,” Matteo Garrone’s “Me Captain” and Wim Wenders’ “Perfect Days.” Other entries for the international feature Oscar include J.A. Bayona’s “Society of the Snow,” Trần Anh Hùng ‘s “The Taste of Things,” Ilker Çatak’s “The Teacher’s Lounge,” and Lila Avilés’ “Tótem.”

Notably, the festival is showing both Poland’s official selection for the Oscars, “The Peasants,” as well as Agnieszka Holland’s “Green Border,” which generated intense controversy over its depiction of the current refugee crisis and was pointedly not selected by Polish cultural officials to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

A statement from Holland read before a screening of the film on Wednesday night said, “We made this film with urgency and anger, but not without hope.”

With a new programming team still finding its footing, this seems like a transitional year for AFI Fest. Even so, there are still plenty of worthwhile titles playing in Los Angeles for the first time, enough to keep any film fan busy for a few days.

“What AFI Fest does prove is that there is much to celebrate in this union of show and business,” said Gazzale. “And at a time in this community when we're enduring a historic divide, AFI fest is really a powerful reminder of what we can accomplish from common ground and how much this art form can be the tonic for what ails us in difficult times. And there's no denying these are difficult times.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.