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AFI Fest's New Life Is Beautiful

With a quality focus, the event's back in the black.

October 18, 1998|Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer

When this year's AFI Film Festival opens a 10-day run Thursday with the U.S. premiere of Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," the 1998 Cannes grand jury prizewinner, festival director Jon Fitzgerald can point to some positive steps the event has taken since he took over last year. By cutting the number of pictures to be shown in half and intensifying corporate sponsorship and promotion, Fitzgerald and his staff succeeded in increasing attendance last year by an impressive 30%.

This year, the American Film Institute festival, operating in the black for the first time in some years, will present about 60 features, representing 30 countries and including a record number of U.S. premieres (21) and world premieres (14). They will be shown at the festival's various sites: the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica.

Formerly director of Slamdance, the Sundance alternative fest, Fitzgerald, 31, spoke in a recent interview about what he learned from his first year and what he hopes to accomplish with the upcoming festival and beyond.

"The first thing I learned is that Los Angeles is such a different audience from the one at Slamdance," he said. "There, I had a 100-seat theater, I picked the best 30 films I could get and I filled the place every day for seven days.

"Here, we have to have films that attract the acquisitions people, but we have also such a wide demographic. We want to try to have something for everyone."

In emphasizing quality over quantity--which often hasn't been the case with either the AFI film fest or its predecessor, Filmex--Fitzgerald believes he has been able to give the festival greater focus and status by introducing a competitive section composed this year of foreign films all in their U.S. debuts. He also wanted to balance the festival's usual quota of quality imports with a selection of worthy American independent productions. The festival also includes a European film showcase, an exhibition of world cinema and a selection of international documentaries.

Fitzgerald is proud that last year's opening-night film, "Character," from the Netherlands, went on to win an Oscar. Benigni's widely honored film, a Chaplinesque fable about the power of imagination set against the grim reality of World War II and concentration camps, seems a shoo-in as Italy's Academy Award entry.

For this year's fest, Fitzgerald set up "New Directions U.S.," comprising 11 films, each costing less than $1 million to make. One of them, John Shea's "Southie," about a young man (Donnie Wahlberg) trying to escape his past, Fitzgerald discovered at Seattle's film festival; the other 10 he culled from about 500 submissions.

Fitzgerald also believes that a festival's special events are crucial to its success. One key event, to be held Saturday at 8 p.m. at Bergamot Station, will be called "Moving Pictures: Where Film Art Meets Fine Art." Filmmakers will donate works of art they have created--paintings, sculpture and photographs--to be auctioned off to benefit the festival.

Another special event is a forum in which established screenwriters can share experiences with novices in the field. The "Screenwriters Weekend" will be held at the Writers Guild Theater on Friday and next Sunday. There will be panel discussions, mixers, receptions and an evening with Robert Towne on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

Fitzgerald said creating a competitive section helps in raising the festival's profile. "This is not so much about simply getting better pictures, but in creating more excitement about them," he said.

To that end, he launched a new corporate sponsorship program. "We've been able to forge alliances with Borders Books & Music and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, just to name a couple. Borders put up our displays in their stores with tables stacked with film books. Last year, the landlord at the Galaxy Theater complex on Hollywood Boulevard gave us free use of an empty record store, and we spent several thousand dollars transforming it into a hospitality suite," he said.

"This year, we're instead going to have a hospitality center on the parking lot next door to the Monica 4-Plex, and Borders will have a different film-book signing there every day of the festival.

"We're really trying to give to Los Angeles an internationally acclaimed festival," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not trying to take away from our other great festivals, like Outfest and the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, but I believe the community, film professionals and the public at large are looking to us to give them a festival on a par with the major festivals the world over."


For AFI Film Festival tickets and information: (213) 520-2000.

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