With last year’s collapse of the L.A. Film Festival, the annual AFI Fest has officially taken over as Los Angeles’ dominant local festival. But at a time when the international film festival circuit has been in a state of flux — including leadership changes at Sundance, Toronto and New York — AFI Fest has undergone a few changes of its own.
Michael Lumpkin took over as director of the festival, which is known for splashy premieres of late-breaking awards season contenders, just ahead of last year’s edition. This is his first full year in the position.
“You have to make sure that you’re delivering on what this festival is, the major film festival in the center of the global filmmaking world,” Lumpkin said during a recent interview on the AFI campus in Los Angeles. “Which when I say it, it scares me. [The job] is just really making sure that it is that festival.”
Among the biggest changes to this year’s festival is a return to charging for tickets. Since 2009, the festival had offered tickets for free, but no more. According to Lumpkin, the shift was motivated more by process and organization than finances, and there will still be a handful of free events.
“There were a couple of reasons [for the change]. One, the mechanism for getting a free ticket was cumbersome and not customer-friendly,” Lumpkin said. “And we had to overbook to ensure a full house. And so there was this increased risk of going to Hollywood and Highland, parking and then not being sure you’re going to get in. I also think that we were missing a certain segment of moviegoers by having this cumbersome system between them and watching a great movie.”
This year’s AFI Fest opens Thursday night with the world premiere of Universal’s politically charged romantic drama “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas. Running through Nov. 21, the festival will host the world premieres of Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” a Warner Bros. release about the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the closing-night film, George Nolfi’s “The Banker,” one of the inaugural films from Apple, about two African-American entrepreneurs who hire a white man to front their businesses.
You have to make sure that you’re delivering on what this festival is, the major film festival in the center of the global filmmaking world.
As festivals continue to work toward greater diversity and inclusion in programming, this year 51 percent of AFI Fest’s 142 titles are directed by women, 35 percent by people of color, 21 percent by women of color and 17 percent by people identifying as LGBTQ+. The festival also had a record number of submissions, with some 4,500 films considered.
“We’ve always been really cognizant of and careful to leverage the big red-carpet attention with these sort of lesser-known films from voices that are underrepresented,” said Lane Kneedler, director of programming. “I don’t want to call it a bait-and-switch, but we want to let film lovers know that when you’re coming to the big red-carpet films, you should also be seeing the short films and the world cinema films, because these are the people that are going to be on the red carpet in five years or 10 years.”
Matsoukas, who makes her feature directing debut with “Queen & Slim,” is a graduate of AFI who earlier this year received the Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni Medallion. She previously had a successful career directing commercials and music videos, including Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and episodes of the comedy series “Master of None” and “Insecure.”
Written by Lena Waithe, “Queen & Slim” follows a couple (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) forced to go on the run after a fatal encounter with a police officer during their first date.
To have the world premiere of the film, which opens nationwide Nov. 27, screen at the opening night of AFI Fest is especially meaningful for Matsoukas. “To see that my school has always supported me and what I feel like is a unique and very specific voice. ... That they’re willing to take that risk and stand behind me as partners, it’s an incredible feeling.
“It means that AFI really is inclusive, that they want to promote diverse voices, they want to promote challenging the status quo and the ideas of what we’ve traditionally seen as acceptable in Hollywood,” Matsoukas said. “They’re not willing to continue down the very ostracizing and diminishing path that Hollywood has taken thus far when it comes to filmmakers of color and female filmmakers and people who are different ... I can’t imagine, honestly, having opened any other film festival.”
AFI really is inclusive... they want to promote challenging the status quo and the ideas of what we’ve traditionally seen as acceptable in Hollywood.
Among the tributes at AFI Fest this year will be a screening of the first episode of the third season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” including an onstage conversation with its writer and creator Peter Morgan. Cast members Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter, Tobias Menzies, Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty are scheduled to attend.
Martin Scorsese will take part in a conversation before a screening of his new film “The Irishman,” also from Netflix.
A tribute to filmmaker Alan J. Pakula will include a screening of the new documentary “Alan Pakula: Going for Truth,” along with free screenings of three of his films, “Klute,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Sterile Cuckoo.”
The lineup of special screenings at this year’s festival includes Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” which won the grand prix at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and was acquired for release by Netflix. Diop won a prize as an actress at AFI Fest in 2012 for the film “Simon Killer,” which she also cowrote. Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which won the screenplay prize at Cannes and was acquired by Neon and Hulu, will play AFI Fest ahead of a December theatrical release.
Sections dedicated to world cinema and new auteurs are similarly filled with films that gained attention at other major festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Venice and Toronto. Several titles — including the Sundance grand jury prize winner “Clemency” starring Alfre Woodard, the Warner Bros. legal bio-drama “Just Mercy” starring Michael B. Jordan and Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” — are screening ahead of December theatrical releases.
The festival will host free screenings of five documentaries that have already been released this year: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s “American Factory,” Roger Ross Williams’ “The Apollo,” Ferras Fayyad’s “The Cave,” Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker” and Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s “One Child Nation.” The Times’ Amy Kaufman will moderate a documentary round-table conversation on Sunday, Nov 16.
With multiple titles from Netflix, in addition to films from Amazon, Hulu and Apple, AFI continues to join other festivals on the frontlines of evolving platforms of distribution. While Apple has acquired films out of festivals including Sundance and Toronto, the closing-night gala for “The Banker” will mark the first time the tech giant has world-premiered a film at a festival.
“Apple’s a really exciting new entry into this space and I’m very happy that they felt that the movie wanted a pretty significant theatrical release and connecting it to a festival,” said Nolfi. “As a filmmaker, you obviously want to have the ability for your films to be seen on the largest screen possible. And Apple seems intent on that as well, and having it shown in the Chinese Theatre is about as large a screen as you can get these days.”
For festival organizers and filmmakers alike, the changes in distribution have only underscored the ongoing importance of the festival experience.
“I think a major factor is how the industry is changing, all of the pretty significant shifts that are happening,” said Lumpkin. “Our goal is to keep up with that and to be in those conversations. And also I think kind of lead in that space as well.
“We recognize the changes and want to be adjusting and changing what we do in response to that with the goal of showing great movies to people in theaters on movie screens,” Lumpkin continued. “Film festivals are the place where that can happen over and over, every year in cities around the world. That’s where people are still coming to see movies in that manner.”
When: Thursday through Nov. 21
Tickets: Begin at $15 for regular screenings ($12 for weekday matinees; $20 for galas)
More info: fest.afi.com