If you're a studio hoping your film has a shot during awards season, chances are you've already premiered the movie to an elite audience by now. With Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and other festivals, there are plenty of opportunities to unveil an Oscar hopeful well in advance of its actual release date.
While most distributors try to create buzz well before the holiday season, a few opt for a different tack: opening a movie at AFI Fest. The event, which kicks off Thursday evening in Hollywood and runs through Nov. 14, has garnered a reputation for showing the cream of the year's festival-circuit crop. Because of where it falls on the calendar, AFI Fest typically doesn't host many world premieres, so the few never-before-seen movies seem to get a bit of extra attention.
At least that's how Relativity Media's Robbie Brenner is hoping the company's "Out of the Furnace" will be received. Along with Peter Berg's Navy SEAL drama "Lone Survivor" from Universal, the Relativity release is one of only two movies at AFI Fest that have yet to officially debut.
"This year is a very hard one — there are so many amazing movies that came out of Toronto and Telluride that it's hard to get your bearings and cut through," said Brenner, Relativity's president of production. "Playing at AFI was always something that was very much at the top of the list, because you have a nice pause after some of the other festivals and everybody's taken a little bit of a breath."
"Out of the Furnace," a gritty thriller out Dec. 6 starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, follows two brothers living in the Rust Belt who find themselves mixed up with a dangerous underground crime ring. Brenner is quick to describe it as "first and foremost a commercial movie," but adds it "probably will be embraced in a critical way."
Even if Brenner is coy about Relativity's award hopes for the film, the independent studio has been down this road before: In 2010, it launched David O. Russell's "The Fighter" at AFI Fest, and the movie eventually went on to win two Academy Awards. Of course, premiering at the eight-day-long festival doesn't always translate into golden statues. Last year, the biopic "Hitchcock" was met with little fanfare, as was Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" in 2011.
Meanwhile, all of this strategizing couldn't be further from mind for festival organizers, who have programmed 119 films from 43 countries into this year's schedule. AFI Fest, which last year welcomed 75,000 guests, is one of the only major film festivals to offer free tickets to its screenings.
"Giving free tickets to the public to see this caliber of film is quite rare," said festival director Jacqueline Lyanga. "It enables us as programmers to work with a mix of films that have broad appeal and ones that are more challenging, where an audience member doesn't feel like they have to take a chance with their pocketbook to experience a film."
Of course, many fans are eager to snap up tickets to AFI Fest's starry galas, where Tom Hanks will walk the red carpet to promote his turn as Walt Disney in "Saving Mr. Banks" and Ben Stiller will talk up his latest directorial effort, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Other popular screenings will likely include Spike Jonze's "Her," Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis," all three frequently mentioned in early Oscar chatter.
But Lyanga and Lane Kneedler, the festival's head of programming, encourage those coming out for the event's more commercial offerings to check out less well-known fare as well. For those looking for an under-the-radar gem, Kneedler suggests Lukas Moodysson's "We Are the Best!" about a group of Swedish girls who form a punk band, or Kim Ki-duk's "Moebius," a violent South Korean film with no dialogue.
The organizers are also particularly proud of the festival's world cinema section, which will spotlight 15 films that are eligible for the foreign-language Oscar including the Dutch black comedy "Borgman" and Israel's "Bethlehem." Agnes Varda, the 85-year-old pioneering French new wave filmmaker, is also serving as the festival's guest director and will present four of her favorite films.
"The festival allows us to extend a feeling of community to people in Los Angeles who don't work in the film industry and can't go to exclusive events," said Lyanga. "But during the festival, you look on the escalator at Hollywood & Highland and you see an agent talking to someone who works in education. It's that feeling you miss in a city that relies less heavily on public transportation."
Though the festival takes place at a number of venues off Hollywood Boulevard — the Chinese 6 inside the shopping mall complex, the Egyptian Theatre, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel — the biggest screenings occur at the TCL Chinese Theatre. The historic venue — long known to Angelenos as Grauman's — this year underwent a $5-million renovation, adding an Imax screen and plush seating.
"I'm excited — I can't wait to see how they've revamped the place," said filmmaker Berg, whose inspirational "Lone Survivor" has in recent weeks quietly been screening for a number of football teams. "I think it'll be a great screen for us to play to a big Hollywood audience."
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article stated that the film "Out of the Furnace" would be released Nov. 27. Its release date is Dec. 6.
When: Thursday-Nov. 14
Where: Hollywood venues including TCL Chinese Theatre, Egyptian Theatre and Chinese 6 Theatres
Ticket pick up: Hollywood & Highland Center, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Suite 223, 10 a.m.-10: p.m.