Anniversary party

The AFI Fest celebrates two decades of innovation with a nod toward its groundbreaking predecessor.

Christian Gaines is priming for two marathons. The first is metaphorical -- as the director of AFI Fest 2006 presented by Audi, Gaines is preparing to oversee every detail of the event, which this year will celebrate its 20th anniversary by unspooling 111 features and 36 short films from 45 countries during the course of its not-quite-two-week run Nov. 1-12. Organizing a film festival of this scope is, after all, "like creating a city for two weeks," recognizes outgoing AFI president and CEO Jean Firstenberg, who plans to retire after the institute's 40th anniversary celebration in 2007.

The second is quite literal -- Gaines is gearing up to cross 25 miles of challenging Honolulu terrain in the hopes of raising money for AIDS charities. While Gaines' two looming ventures might seem unrelated, they actually aren't. He's running the marathon in honor of Gary Essert and Gary Abraham, the late founders of Los Angeles' groundbreaking Filmex Film Festival, which ultimately paved the way for the AFI Fest's present-day incarnation.

In fact, as the AFI Fest celebrates two decades in business, its organizers are taking time to honor the Filmex's storied heritage -- and the memory of "the Garys," as they were known, who passed away from AIDS-related illnesses in the early 1990s. While Gaines hasn't set out to match the pair's penchant for large-scale publicity stunts like, say, sending an elephant lumbering down Hollywood Boulevard or convincing Alfred Hitchcock to make a real-life cameo as a festival shuttle-bus driver as a print of his latest film was delivered to a theater in a hearse, he has planned at least one event to commemorate their contributions to filmdom.

"Filmex's history is just incredible," Gaines says of the original confab, which ran from 1971-85 and was resurrected two years later by the American Film Institute as the AFI Film Festival. "(They had everything) from (Luis) Bunuel's first public appearance to Laurence Olivier's last public appearance."

AFI programrs haven't conjured Bunuel or Olivier, but they have convinced Peter Bogdanovich to be on hand for a screening of his directorial effort "The Last Picture Show," the film that opened the inaugural Filmex back on Nov. 4, 1971, "so everything all comes full circle," Gaines says.

"Last Picture" will be part of AFI Fest 2006's Movie Marathon, which will screen Filmex films interspersed with the festival's original promotional trailers. The marathon is an homage to Filmex's infamous movie marathons, which the Garys programd to epic proportions, like a 50-hour sci-fi-a-thon.

Of course, Gaines and AFI Fest director of programming Nancy Collet are just as serious about moving the festival forward as they are about remembering the past. As part of the event's ongoing partnership with the American Film Market, the AFI Fest has programd 54 films that are being offered there -- titles including the quirky documentary "Air Guitar Nation," two dramas that happen to star Ashley Judd (William Friedkin's unnerving "Bug" and Joey Lauren Adams' "Come Early Morning") and the Peter O'Toole starrer "Venus."

They've also booked a number of high-profile gala events in the fest's headquarters at the ArcLight Cinemas and at the neighboring Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the latter of which will host the U.S. premiere of opening-night film "Bobby," Emilio Estevez's ensemble drama about the societal impact of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968. Because the tragedy took place at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel, Estevez says he wanted "to create a piece indigenous to Los Angeles, so it seems only fitting that the U.S. premiere take place in the City of Angels.

"When you think of the filmmakers that have come out of the AFI programs, it's pretty overwhelming," Estevez continues. "I don't have any formal training as a filmmaker, so I'm truly humbled that they would consider my picture and my work to be celebrated."

While there are several high-profile filmmakers who are alumni of the AFI Conservatory -- specifically Darren Aronofsky, David Lynch and Edward Zwick (whose latest work will be featured at gala events) -- Gaines says that a director's formal training has no bearing on whether his or her film will be accepted into the festival.

Rather, he says, two key criteria come into play: "Ultimately, we're looking for great stories, and we're looking for great collaborations. Those are two exceptional tenets of AFI -- to propel and encourage the art of storytelling. From the first time shadow-plays were played out on the walls of caves all the way through to nonlinear story-spaces of the present day, I think we're always looking for great stories. That's the first and foremost element.

"We're also looking to provide a representative snapshot of the best in international cinema," he adds. "We're trying to provide a balance between showing anticipated new films by the world's masters while also providing a showcase for emerging filmmakers."

"Curse of the Golden Flower," the latest film from one of the world's foremost masters, China's Zhang Yimou, will close the festival with a gala screening at the ArcLight on Sunday, Nov. 12. "He is such a master filmmaker," Collet says of Yimou. "Every time I watch one of his films, I sit there with my jaw open at the utter stunning visual beauty. I just feel like nobody tells a story like Zhang Yimou."

In programming the selections, "one of the things we look for is for the films to have an emotional impact," says Collet, who marks her 10th anniversary with the festival this year. "It doesn't really matter what the story is or if I've seen that story before, but it needs to be told in a way that captivates the audience."

New this year is a World Cinema program, which encompasses the European Showcase the AFI Fest has had in the past. "We had European, Asian, Latin and American sections, yet there was nothing that seemed to include the rest of the world!" Collet says.

Also debuting at the 2006 edition of the fest will be a series titled African Voices, which features six films from across the continent, and Dark Horizons, a late-night program with more edgy fare. "It's not only scary; there's some comedy in there, too," Collet says.

True, but the emphasis is primarily on scares -- and showcasing new talent -- with films including the Thora Birch starrer "Dark Corners," from first-time director Ray Gower, and the Marisa Tomei thriller "Danika," from writer-director Ariel Vromen. Collet says that introducing up-and-coming filmmakers to the community is one of the AFI Fest's most important functions. "That's very, very important to us -- that when the filmmakers come here, it really helps them in their career," she says.

Helping up-and-comers gain attention also is the idea behind the AFI Fest's Kodak Connect program, which was launched seven years ago and pairs 10-12 filmmakers with agents, managers and publicists for two-hour sessions. "It also benefits (those in the industry because) everyone's always saying, 'Who are the great new filmmakers at your festival?'" Collet says. "It's a wonderful sort of speed-dating way to match up filmmakers (with industry executives)."

One of the Connect program's biggest success stories was the Charlize Theron starrer "Monster," according to Collet. Filmmaker and AFI grad Patty Jenkins had a short, "Velocity Rules," screening at the 2001 edition of the AFI Fest, and through a Connect session, pitched her idea for a biopic about convicted Florida serial killer Aileen Wournos to producer Brad Wyman. Two years later, the film, which Wyman went on to co-produce, had its world premiere as AFI Fest 2003's closing-night feature. "Monster" also earned not only the best first feature prize at the Independent Spirit Awards for Jenkins and the producing team but the best actress Oscar for star Theron.

"There have been several films that have come from that program," Collet says. "That's just so exciting, when you're not only helping the filmmakers with their current project, but you're giving them tools to help their future career."

Talk of expansion also has AFI Fest executives excited these days. In September, word came that a spinoff event, the AFI Dallas International Film Festival presented by Target, will take place March 22-April 1, showcasing roughly 150 feature films and shorts, according to festival artistic director (and AFI alum) Michael Cain. Cain and his crew have spent the past month shadowing the L.A. team to find out what they're up against.

"What we're learning is what a snapshot of a festival looks like 30 days out -- a festival we really respect," says Cain, who previously operated Dallas' Deep Ellum festival. "So, it gives us a great (sense of) where we need to be. The great thing is that they've delegated and created a plan, and there's such a great blueprint that, of 100% of things that are going on, they've got 89% covered. And the 11%, you can never predict."

Which is precisely what keeps Gaines on his toes. With the festival kick off just around the corner and training going well -- he ran 18 miles last weekend -- he has the finish line in his sights. Gaines says that he's tried to manage his way through the chaotic planning stages by staying focused on the AFI Fest's guiding principles, which include "being a festival of record for the very best in international cinema; focusing on providing an environment that provides the best possible picture and sound and the best possible screening environment; providing an environment for the interaction of films and filmmakers and the audience; creating and enhancing the communal experience of going to the movies, which is very, very important to us; and, attendant to that, providing the greatest compliment to a filmmaker that you can, which is to yield to the experience for two hours."