Know your audience

The AFI Fest remains committed to bringing the best in world cinema to the movie-savvy denizens of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles' longest-running film festival, AFI Fest, has been a bastion of constancy in an industry fueled by passing trends. But with a new artistic director in Rose Kuo and a newly installed president and CEO of parent AFI -- Bob Gazzale, whose first day on the job is Nov. 1 -- change is in the air and on the screen.

"What really has been key is looking at the festival in terms of how best it serves the audience in L.A.," Kuo says. "AFI is unique in that we're located in the movie city, and we have in Los Angeles probably one of the most sophisticated, movie-savvy viewing audiences in the world. And so the festival has an incredible challenge to meet. What we have to do is really study the whole face of the industry and see where it's going and to identify what the trends are and to know what is the next big thing."

Given that AFI Fest 2007, presented by Audi, takes place Nov. 1-11, many of the year's best films already have been discovered at earlier festivals like those in Cannes, Berlin and Toronto. But rather than spend her time jockeying with rivals over who gets which world premiere, Kuo has decided to turn the event's awards-season berth to her advantage.

"Film festivals all around the world have a desire to get world premieres -- as many as they can -- and AFI Fest is not unique in that," Kuo says. "We decided that given that our festival takes place at the end of the year, one thing we should be doing in Los Angeles is probably trying to select the best films that have been shown in festivals around the world this year, as well as trying to get new films."

In comparison to last year's 22 world premieres, 30 North American premieres and 28 U.S. premieres, this year's festival will feature eight world premieres, 17 North American premieres and 18 U.S. premieres.

This is not to say that AFI hasn't continued to honor its mandate of providing audiences with opportunities for discovery. While early screenings of titles such as Noah Baumbach's Paramount Vantage talker "Margot at the Wedding" and Richard Kelly's long-gestating "Southland Tales" do form a significant portion of the programming, the heart of AFI Fest remains the international competitive sections, which are restricted to features, documentaries and shorts making their U.S. debuts and directed by first or second-time filmmakers.

Danish director Paprika Steen, who was named one of the New Faces in European Cinema at AFI Fest two years ago, is returning to the International Narrative Competition with her sophomore film, "With Your Permission." The dark comedy explores the physically abusive marriage between two frustrated opera singers, only one of whom possesses any real talent.

Steen decided to submit her film to AFI Fest because of the support and opportunity that the festival provides for filmmakers. "What I like about AFI -- not like Cannes or the big sales festivals -- is that you actually get to meet colleagues from the world," she says. "You actually get to talk about movies, and you're not always just running around doing interviews and trying to sell your film.

"And they arrange a lot for you," she continues. "Last time, I was chosen to be one of the directors to watch, and we met with Pedro Almodovar. These are the newcomers, and these are the old guys, you know. It was very respectful to our work. You felt like you were acknowledged and appreciated."

For director of festivals Christian Gaines, providing these opportunities for emerging talents is an integral part of AFI Fest's role as an outreach program of the American Film Institute. "It's a track that we really focus hard on -- emerging filmmakers, films of discovery, U.S. premieres from first- and second-time feature filmmakers from all over the world," he says. "From the minute that we accept their film until they come to the film festival, we do not leave them alone!"

AFI Fest accepted 148 films representing 37 countries from its roughly 4,300 submissions this year, and for the chosen few, the rewards are sweet. Three of the most dynamic programs for AFI Fest filmmakers are a cultural exchange called AFI Project: 20/20; the Kodak Connect series of meetings, lunches, breakfasts and cocktail hours with industry professionals; and the partnership with the American Film Market.

While AFM is held in Santa Monica and AFI Fest takes place at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood, the two comprise the only festival/market combination in North America. In addition to shared marketing, sponsorship and scheduling, AFI Fest has a special priority list program that provides tickets, passes, ground transportation and accommodations to sales agents at companies that distribute art films.

"I like to think that we provide a certain level of high-quality oxygen," Gaines says. "As those films are being sold at AFM, having a cultural birth at AFI Fest can really help them a lot." The numbers back him up: Last year, 27 titles were acquired for U.S. theatrical distribution, sold international territories or negotiated remake rights in the U.S.

More international sales occurred at AFI Fest 2006 than any other festival in the United States.

This year, the festival will open with the North American premiere of Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs," the first film released under Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise's revamped United Artists banner. The centerpiece gala will be Jason Reitman's sophomore feature "Juno," Fox Searchlight's comedy about a teen pregnancy starring Ellen Page and Michael Cera, and the festival will close with the North American premiere of Mike Newell's adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic novel "Love in the Time of Cholera," a New Line release.

Additionally, DigiFest -- a sampling of digital projects that includes Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick's Internet series and social networking site Quarterlife -- will take place at the Linwood Dunn

Theatre on Nov. 8-9. AFI Fest also will feature two tribute events honoring Laura Linney prior to the screening of Fox Searchlight's "The Savages" and Catherine Deneuve before Sony Pictures Classics' "Persepolis" unspools.

As a new complement to the traditional screening Q&As, this year's festival will introduce a free series of thematic panels and discussions held in the rooftop village on the top floor of the parking structure of the ArcLight.

"We're examining stereotypes in the movies," Gaines says. "We're doing a great documentary panel on 'Whose reality is this?' We're doing a couple of other panels, one on the auteur-versus-collaborator theory. We're going to have Bruce Wagner and James Ellroy just sitting and talking, which will be bizarre. We're doing a filmanthropy panel, the power of film to inspire American philanthropy, which should be interesting."

Two major trends in this year's programming are films about Hollywood and political films, Kuo says. "We are definitely going to have films about conflict and about the effects of war," she offers. "We are bringing in a documentary called 'Body of War' that was co-directed by Phil Donahue about an Iraqi war veteran who returns home and then actually, in his evolution, becomes an anti-war advocate. We have one from China called 'Please Vote For Me,' which is about democracy being introduced into a classroom via a vote for class monitor. And there's definitely a lot of films about films this year. We have a documentary about William Castle, and we have a film by Arthur Dong about Chinese stereotypes throughout film history."

One film in the International Documentary Competition that qualifies as both political and a film about Hollywood is Nina Davenport's documentary "Operation Filmmaker," about an Iraqi intern on the set of Liev Schreiber's 2005 release "Everything Is Illuminated."

"In many documentaries, the subject just tells their story and that's it," says Davenport. "But in this case, the subject was revolting against the project. Somewhere towards the end of the shoot, I realized that the drama between the Americans on the set and the Iraqi would also work on a metaphorical level because it was exactly what was going on in Iraq in the occupation."

Kuo revels in AFI Fest 2007's diversity, which she sees as serving the needs of the sophisticated Los Angeles audience. "Let's just say that (the Sundance Film Festival) is the best for American indies, and New York is the connoisseur's film festival as well as Telluride. (The Toronto International Film Festival) is just the best film festival in North America in terms of a comprehensive and deep selection of all films," she says. "I think that we're the nexus of all these festivals in Los Angeles.

"We have films out of Sundance, CineVegas, Seattle, Tribeca," Kuo continues. "The idea is bringing somewhat of a comprehensive film program to Los Angeles -- which is very hard to do in 97 features -- but in the mix, have the important films that came out of Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Telluride and New York, so that the audiences here see the films that have been talked about out of those. But also try to give a platform for new filmmakers who we feel Hollywood should examine a little bit closer."