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Given its place on the fall festival calendar — not to mention its location in the heart of Hollywood — AFI Fest is one of the final stops on the festival circuit and an early indicator for awards season.
This year is no exception, with the biggest film festival in L.A. screening a host of awards hopefuls, including Will Smith in King Richard, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s anticipated Tick, Tick … Boom!, Parallel Mothers from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised and Illumination’s Sing 2 as well as festival standouts from earlier in the year like Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog and Sean Baker’s Red Rocket.
But AFI Fest isn’t just about glitz. Like all film events these days, the nonprofit also confronts issues of representation when curating the festival. Sarah Harris, AFI Fest’s director of programming since 2018, talked to THR about programming parity, increasing accessibility and the role festivals will play in the post-pandemic theatrical recovery.
Where does AFI fit into the larger festival ecosystem?
What we are doing is trying to highlight the best of what we’ve seen in a way that’s a little bit different than some other festivals. Because it is at the end of the year, there are very few films that are world premieres. That’s not our game. We’re here really to elevate the best films of the year and to celebrate those films.
How do you go about handling gender and racial parity in programming?
We don’t do quotas, we are just mindful of what we’re representing. And I think that speaks to the programming staff. We also know our blind spots, and we talk about our blind spots as well when we’re discussing films. Being a woman director of programming, gender parity is something I feel very strongly about, and we’ve been successful with that every year since I’ve been here. But it’s more than that.
What is the goal for staffing?
In general, different voices. There are a lot of festivals that are nonprofits and some that are not, and that affects entrance into staffing and who can take a lower paycheck. Like any conversation around labor right now, it’s all very related to who gets access. Across the board, the film industry is wrestling with this. I think the pandemic pushed those things to the forefront a lot faster, which is not a bad thing.
Virtual film festivals proved more accessible than in-person editions. What did AFI learn by putting on a digital festival that it will take with it into future iterations of the fest?
One of the things is closed-captioning files. We were able to really push on that in the virtual [screenings], and that gave a lot of access to people who previously weren’t able to participate. It seems like a small thing, but it’s one of those challenges that is hard to tackle.
Do film festivals have a place in the theatrical recovery?
I do think so. It really is about the community of people that goes to theaters and supports the word-of-mouth on films. There’s always the talk of being together in a dark room, but it’s more than that. It’s also who you meet in the lobby. It’s being able to listen to a filmmaker who has traveled so far. I think that community aspect is something that’s different than you just going to a movie on a Friday night.
This year or prior, were there reservations about programming movies from streaming services like Netflix?
At AFI, we want to support the filmmakers. We want to support the studios. We are the national institute to support the art form. So, for us, we’re just like, “How do we help?” This is part of the industry, and this is part of how films are being shown. On our side, we are discussing, “What is the future of exhibition?” There are a lot of people having these conversations right now, and we’re having them, too. We are trying to make sure that we are supportive.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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