Los Angeles’ AFI Fest will go virtual in 2020. Here’s what they’ve learned from other fests
The revised fall festival corridor in the age of COVID has continued to take shape with recent announcements of hybrid virtual/physical events from Venice, Toronto and New York, along with the outright cancellation of Telluride. Now, L.A.’s own AFI Fest will officially be a virtual event when it takes place Oct. 15-22.
Continuing their Thursday to Thursday run but moving up a month from their most recent dates in November, festival organizers plan to have much of the same programming structure as in past years, including sections dedicated to world cinema and new auteurs. According to Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI festivals, where other festivals are drastically scaling back the number of films being screened, AFI Fest will likely only have a 10% to 20% reduction in the number of titles presented, if any reduction at all. (The event screened more than 140 titles in 2019.)
“Structurally it’s very similar to what we’ve done in the past years,” said Lumpkin during a recent phone call. “Presenting great films from around the world to our audiences and having really great discussions and conversations around the films and around the industry.”
The organizers of AFI Fest have one advantage over other fall fests making the switch to virtual events — they have already done it. The AFI Docs festival, based out of Washington, D.C., took place in June with ticketed virtual screenings and events. Lumpkin noted that attendance was actually higher than in years past, drawing viewers from all 50 states, without the logistics of theater bookings and seat capacity.
“The experience at the end of the day was very similar, a lot of the same things happened and we intentionally wanted it to be built like a virtual version of what we usually do on the ground,” he said. “How the festival looked and its structure looks fairly similar. What was different was just the work to get there.
“It’s a shift,” said Lumpkin. “Festivals and the film industry as well, worked for such a long time on a model of ... ‘We’re going to show the movie in a theater on the screen and people are going to come.’ That piece of it is very different, and it [meant] more conversations and questions back and forth for everyone involved. [But] we were all in the same boat, everybody’s faced with this new reality that we had to adjust to, whether it’s festivals, filmmakers, distributors, studios — everybody. We’re all in this together and together we’re figuring this out.”
We’re all in this together and together we’re figuring this out.
— Michael Lumpkin, director of AFI festivals, on the shift to a virtual event
For those wondering how a virtual festival might work, Lumpkin noted that the AFI Docs event was remarkably similar to a traditional in-person, on-the-ground event. Ticket sales and online chatter still function to create that most ineffable sense of momentum that creates festival hits.
“The thing that we were the most unsure about was generating buzz about a title as it debuts at a virtual festival,” he said. “The buzz, the press attention, the engagement of filmmakers and those kinds of things actually did happen.
“As we were talking with some of the partners that we had worked with — distributors, studios, sales agents and whatnot — they were very pleased with what happened. They actually got things out of the festival,” said Lumpkin. “One of the main reasons to put films in film festivals is to get that sometimes intangible stuff like buzz and attention and audience reaction. So that was a really great outcome.”
Lumpkin also noted that “a virtual festival really kind of democratizes the festival” for the way it makes it possible for audiences and also filmmakers who cannot physically make it to the festival site to still participate, allowing for increased access overall.
AFI Fest will likely make its program announcements sometime in September. Historically, the festival — which usually happens in November — has hosted world premieres of awards season contenders that weren’t quite ready or willing to show up at earlier festivals. AFI premieres include “American Sniper,” “Selma,” “The Fighter,” “The Big Short” and “Monster,” while last year’s festival opened with the world premiere of Melina Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim” and also unveiled Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell.”
“I think the important thing is that the essential piece of any festival, the films, the voices and the stories that really are the heart of the festival, isn’t changing,” said Lumpkin. “Our vision of what AFI is and the importance of these stories is even more important considering everything that’s going on in our world right now, I think there is such urgency for some of these great films and voices to be heard. And that’s the driving force for us. That’s what kept us going, figuring this out. How do you present a film festival? How do you present these stories and these voices amid this current situation? And, you know, we figured it out.”
Acknowledging the uncertainty of not only the festival world but the world at large, Lumpkin added one small caveat by saying, “Everything is subject to change.”
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