Anthony Hopkins stars as Alfred Hitchcock in Hitchcock." (Fox Searchlight )
When Fox Searchlight learned that the filmmakers behind their Alfred Hitchcock biopic would be able to finish the movie by this fall, the studio's executives were thrilled. Not only could "Hitchcock" then enter the awards season derby, but the movie starring Anthony Hopkins as the famed director could also have a splashy premiere at AFI Fest.
"The timing was a coincidence, but it couldn't be a more perfect fit for us to have 'Hitchcock' playing the festival's opening night," said Searchlight's Co-President Nancy Utley. "People get to see the movie with an audience, and so many of our movies screen with people sitting in isolation. The celebratory atmosphere really allows us to see how the movie plays. It becomes a discovery."
On Thursday, "Hitchcock" will kick off the 26th annual AFI Fest with a glitzy red carpet premiere — though none of the film's key stars will be able to attend. (Hopkins and Helen Mirren, who plays Hitchcock's wife, are filming a movie together in London; Scarlett Johansson is rehearsing for a Broadway production; and newlywed Jessica Biel is on her honeymoon with Justin Timberlake.)
PHOTOS: Video - A guide to AFI Fest 2012
But there will be plenty of celebrities making their way to the weeklong festival, which will screen 80 feature films and 56 shorts before its conclusion Nov. 8. Unlike most high-profile film festivals, AFI Fest spotlights a number of movies that have already launched at other events. In fact, "Hitchcock" is only one of two world premieres that will be unveiled in Hollywood over the next week; the other, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," technically already played during a surprise screening at the New York Film Festival last month.
Instead, AFI Fest organizers say that their intention is to bring the cream of the entire film festival crop to local audiences. Indeed, many of the titles being spotlighted have already been earmarked as awards-season contenders, like Ang Lee's 3-D adaptation of the bestselling novel "Life of Pi," the French film "Rust and Bone" starring Marion Cotillard and the Bradley Cooper-Jennifer Lawrence dramedy "Silver Linings Playbook" from director David O. Russell.
For the fourth year, AFI Fest will offer free tickets to the event, which attracted 75,000 people last year (for details go to http://www.afi.com). The event's location in the heart of Hollywood at such venues as Grauman's Chinese Theatre helps to lure in more casual moviegoers as well, said festival director Jacqueline Lyanga.
Photos: Alfred Hitchcock's career
"People who wouldn't have found out about the festival who just go down to the boulevard looking for a star wind up at our screenings," Lyanga said.
Though casual film fans might be more excited about catching a glimpse of Kristen Stewart — whose "On the Road" is playing Saturday — AFI Fest has also become a hub for international film. This year, pictures from 28 countries are represented, including France, South Korea, Romania and Mexico, the last of which had a noticeable uptick in submissions this year, organizers said. Seven Mexican films will play at the festival, including "After Lucia," the country's foreign-language Oscar submission.
"Mexico is a country that is doing some amazing filmmaking. The political climate may be inspiring some artists in interesting ways," said Lane Kneedler, the festival's head of programming. "We have a lot of horror films from Mexico this year, and it seems like artists are turning real-world horrors from the horrible political landscape into art."
For other under-the-radar choices, Kneedler and Lyanga suggest two of their favorites: "Greatest Hits," a comedic look at a man who sells compilation CDs in the subway, and "Tey," a Senegalese movie about a man who is told he has only one day to live.
Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, best known for "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor," will serve as the festival's guest artistic director. The 72-year-old is unable to fly from Europe to Los Angeles for health reasons, but the festival will screen four of the writer-director's favorite films as well as a behind-the-scenes look at how he made his upcoming Italian-language film "Me and You."
Even being in the spiritual company of a veteran filmmaker like Bertolucci is encouraging for newer filmmakers like Mike Ott, who is returning to AFI Fest for his second year.
"As a filmmaker, AFI Fest was always an event I knew about and held in high regard as a top tier U.S. festival," said Ott, whose "Little Rock" played at the event in 2010 and new film "Pearblossom Highway" will screen this year. "It's kind of intimidating programming, actually. It's a bunch of my favorite filmmakers, which is good company to be in."