Three top organizers resign posts at AFI Fest

Just months after the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest introduced the revolutionary idea of free tickets for its patrons, three of the LA-based festival’s top organizers have left their posts, citing a diminished budget as their primary reason for leaving.

AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo, festival producer David Rogers and head of press and public relations at the American Film Institute John Wildman all announced earlier this week that they were leaving the organization. For AFI Fest 2009, which ran Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, the trio had worked with a drastically reduced budget, venue changes and far fewer films on exhibition -- 67, down from the previous year’s 100 -- and with single instead of multiple screenings. The event was nevertheless considered by many to be a rousing and well-attended success.

AFI Fest: An article in Thursday’s Calendar section about three organizers of the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest leaving their posts misspelled the last name of former AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo in several references as Quo. —

The 2009 edition of the festival featured such high-profile awards hopefuls as “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Road” and “A Single Man” as well as international films and less obviously crowd-pleasing titles such as “Ne change rein,” “A Lake” and “Trash Humpers.”

The radical idea of not charging for tickets, underwriting the festival largely through sponsorship money, drew surprisingly strong crowds to even the most difficult and obscure films. The departures, announced Monday on the website, indicate a rift between the AFI Fest and the larger organization of the American Film Institute, which, as reported by The Times in October, had been experiencing financial woes even before the recession.

Quo, who was hired in 2007 and oversaw three editions of the AFI Fest, said that AFI wanted her, Rogers and Wildman to work on the 2010 installment of the festival, but her creative team wasn’t interested in producing it again under the same financial limitations.

“I think after this year, I don’t know that I can go to that wall again,” Rogers said, “bringing that same delivery level and level of professionalism that everybody has come to expect out of AFI Fest. At that budget number we had been reduced down to, I couldn’t with 100% assurance say absolutely, we can do that again.”

Budget concerns

Nancy Harris, chief operating officer of AFI, declined to be interviewed for this article, but wrote via e-mail: “When you produce an event like AFI Fest for 24 years, change is inevitable. We know Rose and Dave will continue to do great things wherever they set their sights, and we’re excited to announce our new AFI Fest team and details in the coming weeks.”

While they declined to give exact figures, Kuo, Rogers and Wildman all said that even with the reduced festival budget and free ticketing initiative, the 2009 festival came in on-budget. “It was one of the most exciting festivals I’ve been a part of,” Quo said. “And it’s a model that should continue and other festivals should look at. I think it’s completely sustainable. That’s what’s remarkable about it.”

Wildman added: “I think by every single account, the free festival was a success. We almost put on this festival in spite of itself.”

Personnel changes

AFI Fest is hardly the only event to undergo sudden and significant changes in its top ranks. The last two years have seen shake-ups and personnel changes at a host of major festivals, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sundance, Denver, South by Southwest, New York, Tribeca, Toronto and Cannes.

AFI Fest programmers Lane Kneedler and Jacqueline Lyanga remain at the organization. Film critic turned 2009 fest programmer Robert Koehler said that his contract with AFI had expired. Kneedler, who didn’t respond to an e-mail request for an interview, took to his Twitter account Monday night to say: “Just as an fyi, AFI Fest isn’t going anywhere. [Jacqueline Lyanga] and I are still here and hope to see you all in November!”

However, Wildman voiced one of the questions raised by the sudden departures: “How much of a priority AFI Fest is at AFI? Hard to tell.”