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AFI, serving the cineastes of the world

American Film Institute's annual showcase of domestic and international movies opens this week despite financial pressures.

October 25, 2009|John Horn

It was launched in the Rose Garden by President Lyndon B. Johnson to advance and preserve the art of the moving image. For decades, the American Film Institute thrived doing just that. Now, like almost every other nonprofit organization knocked sideways by the recession, AFI finds itself having to script its own comeback story.

Much of AFI's campus near Griffith Park has neither air conditioning nor heating. AFI's last televised Top 100 show lost more than $1 million, and the cable ratings for its Life Achievement Award are plunging. An ambitious, encyclopedic AFI directory of American movies still has four decades of films to catalog, and government support for the project has dried up.

If any organization needs to unwind in a movie theater for an hour or two, it's AFI -- and from Friday through Nov. 7, the institute can do just that with its annual AFI Fest, primarily playing at Grauman's Chinese Theater and Mann Chinese 6 theaters in Hollywood.

Unlike many other leading film festivals, AFI Fest, now in its 23rd year, is not interested in an onslaught of glitzy, star-filled premieres. Film distributors and sales agents do not converge on the festival to strike rich deals as they do at Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. And while AFI Fest (which is co-sponsored by The Times) has a handful of gala screenings -- Tom Ford's "A Single Man," Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- most of the festival's tickets were given away for free this year, with almost all screenings filling up just a few hours after tickets became available online.

"It was inspired by the times," says Bob Gazzale, AFI's president and chief executive officer. "If you can't look to the American Film Institute to open the doors to a movie theater, I'm not sure who you can look to." Gazzale says much of the lost revenue from ticket sales will be covered by underwriting from sponsor Audi. That said, the festival has reduced the number of features it is showing from 98 a year ago to 67 this year, and AFI Fest movies will be shown only once instead of enjoying multiple screenings.

"We wanted to figure out how we could get people excited about a celebration of film," says Rose Kuo, AFI Fest's artistic director. "The AFI has a mission to celebrate film artists. This is completely in line with that."

The festival is filled with some of the most acclaimed films from this year's more prominent film festivals, making for a weeklong primer in the best of world cinema.

AFI Fest's schedule includes Germany's "The White Ribbon" (winner of Cannes' Palm d'Or); the U.S. film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Toronto and Sundance audience awards); Spain and Peru's "The Milk of Sorrow" (winner of Berlin's Golden Bear prize); Germany's "Everyone Else" (Berlin's Silver Bear prize); Iran's "About Elly"(Berlin's best director trophy); and China's "City of Life and Death" (San Sebastian's Golden Seashell award).

"Many of our audience members work in the industry, but a surprising number of them haven't seen these films," Kuo says of her programming philosophy. "We approached this as a survey of the year's most significant films. If you're going to make a Top 10 list, you have to see these movies."

While the town's other leading festival, summer's Los Angeles Film Festival, mixes high-profile studio films ("Public Enemies") with sometimes obscure independent dramas and documentaries ("Paper Man," "Bananas"), AFI Fest favors world cinema. "I think the city benefits from different festivals with different agendas spread out through the year," says Robert Koehler, the festival's programming director. "Our focus leans much more toward the international."

It's among the few distinctions between the annual festival and the heavily Americanist institute.

Since its founding in 1967, the AFI has focused its energies on three distinct but sometimes overlapping endeavors: preserving the nation's film heritage, training the next generation of filmmakers at its Los Angeles film school, and recognizing and celebrating U.S. film excellence through annual awards, tributes, screenings and festivals.

The AFI campus, adjacent to Griffith Park, has been home to some of the industry's most prominent filmmakers. AFI Conservatory (as the two-year film school is known) alumni include directors Ed Zwick ("Defiance"), Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line") and David Lynch ("Blue Velvet"); screenwriters Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver"), Scott Frank ("Get Shorty") and Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"); and producers Steve Golin ("Babel"), Marshall Herskovitz ("Blood Diamond") and Mark Waters ("(500) Days of Summer").

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