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

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The AFI Fest kicked off on Wednesday evening with the world premiere of the thrilling apocalyptic story “Leave the World Behind,” directed by Sam Esmail. Despite boasting an impressive cast that includes Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Myha’la, and Mahershala Ali, none of them were present at the TCL Chinese screening due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike.

Esmail, a graduate of AFI’s directing program, had never actually received his diploma. So, just before the film’s screening, Bob Gazzale, the president and CEO of the American Film Institute, presented it to Esmail. The moment lacked the comedic flair or emotional weight it could have had, much like the evening itself.


AFI Fest has traditionally capitalized on being at the end of the fall festival season, showcasing films that had premiered elsewhere and introducing a few late-breaking titles. However, in recent years, the festival has struggled to find the right balance and has become less essential to the Los Angeles film scene, despite the presence of many noteworthy films.

This year marks Todd Hitchcock’s first year as the director of AFI Fest, which runs through Sunday. A long-time member of the 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 also based out of AFI’s Maryland office, with some of the programming team still located in Los Angeles.

Hitchcock and Algar acknowledged that having a centralized programming department streamlines the organization but is not without its challenges. They aimed to strike a balance between maintaining the festival’s stature and avoiding over-engineering the event.

The festival scene in Los Angeles has been in need of a dominant flagship event, especially with the LA Film Festival closing down in 2018 and Outfest facing financial difficulties and staff layoffs. Festivals like Beyond Fest and the TCM Classic Film Festival have taken the lead, catering to enthusiastic audiences. Other local festivals, such as the Animation Is Film Festival and the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, also have devoted followings.

AFI Fest opted not to focus on world premieres this year, as it has in the past, and instead presented fresh films to local audiences, even if these titles had previously premiered at other festivals. The closing night selection, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” which had already been shown in Venice and New York, still holds appeal for audiences, especially when viewed at the iconic Chinese Theatre.

Greta Gerwig, director of “Barbie,” is serving as the guest artistic director of AFI Fest this year. She selected five films to be shown during the festival and will appear in person to introduce a screening of Tim Burton’s “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “A Matter of Life and Death.”

The festival will screen many titles that have premiered elsewhere throughout the year, including entries for the Academy Award for International Feature. Notably, the festival is showing both Poland’s official selection for the Oscars, “The Peasants,” and Agnieszka Holland’s “Green Border,” which generated controversy for its portrayal of the refugee crisis.

With a new programming team finding its footing, this year appears to be a transitional one for AFI Fest. Nevertheless, there are still numerous compelling films making their Los Angeles debut, offering plenty to engage film enthusiasts.

In the words of Bob Gazzale, “What AFI Fest does prove is that there is much to celebrate in this union of show and business. At a time when we’re enduring a historic divide in our community, AFI Fest is 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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