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Why the AFI Fest could be an important piece of the Oscar puzzle

Why the AFI Fest could be an important piece of the Oscar puzzle
Christian Bale is part of a standout cast in “The Big Short,” which is about the financial crisis of 2008. (Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)

For those who follow the film business casually, the parade of major festivals this time of year — with its banging drums of big premieres and loud echo of pundit reactions — can seem endless.

The march does, in fact, come to a conclusion. And that end will, well, begin, when the weeklong AFI Fest opens Thursday night in Hollywood.

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A product of Los Angeles' American Film Institute, AFI Fest is the last of a group of gatherings that starts at Southern France's Cannes Film Festival in May and intensifies with confabs in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York after the summer has passed. Together, they set the stage for which movies will be a hit or an Oscar power in the film world's busy end-of-year period — and which will slink away into the wintry night.

AFI offers the final crop of such hopefuls, and this year they are predictably high-profile. The world-premiere screenings will begin with the Angelina Jolie-Pitt-directed love story "By the Sea" on Thursday, continue with Will Smith's newsmaking NFL-themed film "Concussion" on Tuesday and wrap on Nov. 12 with "The Big Short," an adaptation of Michael Lewis' financial-crash book by Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment.

The trio of movies, which will play at the TCL Chinese Theatre, will have the potential to take a diverse awards season that lacks a front-runner and jolt it anew.

"There are so many great filmmakers and so much content to choose from out there that to have a nurturing environment like AFI is wonderful opportunity to make a movie stand out," said Jeremy Kleiner, a principal at Plan B. "AFI has certainly done that in the past, and I think it's going to happen again this year."

To whom it happens — and how — is a more cryptic puzzle.

"Concussion," which Sony releases on Christmas Day, is perhaps the most intriguing case. Telling the story of Bennet Omalu (Smith), the doctor who more than a decade ago began making connections between football hits and a deadly brain injury, the Peter Landesman film arrives with the high hopes of a whistleblowing drama — and an ionic charge thanks to hacked emails that suggested the film might have been diluted to please the NFL.

"Football is a beautiful pageantry that occupies an entire day of the week — it's Rockwellian American," Landesman said in an email, when asked about the themes of the movie. "And it's also dangerous. We have to embrace that contradiction. Now that we know, we can all make informed decisions for ourselves."

As for the allegations of pandering, he wrote in part, "Anyone who actually sees the movie will take that strange, almost arbitrary, accusation for what it was — uninformed nonsense. It felt like someone was reaching for a story that simply wasn't there. We made the movie responsibly. End of story."

Jolie-Pitt's film comes with plenty off-screen intrigue — it's a passion project for the A-lister, who wrote, produced, directed and acted in it. It's also her first collaboration with Pitt in 10 years, since their relationship-defining "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." The opening-night slot raises the film's profile — and, commensurately, the expectations.

"The Big Short," meanwhile, has an author whose work has made for big Oscar and box-office hits — they include "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side." The film comes with a stalwart cast that includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Melissa Leo, and a director, Adam McKay, best known for making studio comedies with Will Ferrell.

Though its interest in those who profited from the 2008 financial crisis by shorting the market may seem like a bygone subject, filmmakers say the movie remains relevant.

"We're still living that event," Kleiner said. "It happens to be in the past but we're still experiencing the results of decisions that were made. The film hopefully will help people have an understanding of what that was."

The prospect of AFI screenings inserting themselves into the Oscar race is partly by design and partly incidental, organizers say.

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"Premieres are one of those things we're thinking about when we put together the schedule," said AFI Fest director Jacqueline Lyanga. "But when we're looking at the season we're also looking at what we want to say as a festival. It's been a tough year internationally and we're heading into an election, so we're thinking of the kinds of conversations we want to stir. Award season is part of it, but it's not just about award season."

Indeed, there are a host of other offerings beyond the world premieres, some of them of the more global variety. They include a splashy event for Michael Moore's Europe-hopping policy documentary "Where to Invade Next," which hopes to continue buzz it built in Toronto and New York. There are also screenings for Charlie Kaufman's critically lauded stop-motion movie "Anomalisa" and foreign-film favorites such as "The Lobster," a dystopian comedy about relationship culture that has already begun emerging as a cult favorite.

And there are events beyond traditional movies, including a raft of programming on virtual reality, with a keynote Saturday by Glen Keane, a tech pioneer and former Disney animator.

Much of the film industry, however, will have its eyes trained on what it will mean for the unfurling Oscar season.

AFI has certainly launched some big movies of late — an electric screening for "Selma" set that film on the path to art-house hitdom and a best picture nomination a year ago, while "American Sniper," debuting on the same night," would use the screening to slowly build momentum until it became the highest-grossing movie of 2014.

Of course, coming in so late could also mean the momentum has been seized elsewhere — a particular challenge in recent years with the increased clout of fests such as New York.

The headstart held by other festivals earlier in the season can make it harder for a November gathering like AFI to land the most buzzed-about premieres. And those it does land don't always deliver.  A number of movies with AFI hopes have not materialized at either the box office or awards podium after deubting at the festival in recent years, including "Saving Mr. Banks," "Hitchcock" and "A Most Violent Year," the 2014 opener.

But in a season when there's less clarity — though films such as "Spotlight," "Room" and "Bridge of Spies" have their supporters, none are runaway contenders — AFI is a chance for a savvy studio to step in and get a big boost as they go into their November or December release.

It's also a chance for those that opened quietly elsewhere to wait out the noise and come back in when others are flagging.

IFC, which had last year's awards darling "Boyhood," has been under the radar with "45 Years," a critically lauded movie that premiered in Berlin last winter and played a number of the post-summer festivals to relatively little fanfare.

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Andrew Haigh's slow-burn drama about a long marriage shaken by new revelations is choosing AFI as a launchpad of sorts; though the film has played Telluride and Toronto, AFI will be the first appearance for star Charlotte Rampling, who with costar Tom Courtenay will be given a tribute at the fest in the hope of boosting the actors' awards chances.

"I can't say I've seen all the movies disappointing at the box office or underwhelming critics," said IFC Films President Jonathan Sehring. "What I can say is that we conscientiously didn't want to go up against all of them. This is the best approach."

Another film from earlier in the year, Josh Mond's parent-child drama "James White," will wrap an unusually long run that began at Sundance last January, with the hope that AFI can jumpstart its run. "It has been a long time," Mond said. "We could almost play Sundance again. 'What do you think of the movie _this year_"?

AFI can also nudge the Oscar conversation in unexpected directions with its traditional "secret screening," as "Sniper" was last year and David O. Russell's The Fighter" in 2010. Pundits are keeping a eye on two films, Russell's "Joy," and Alejandro G. Iñárritu's "The Revenant," December releases from awards darlings that have yet to screen.

Lyanga says that Oscar speculation is valid, but she hopes it doesn't consume the AFI oxygen.

"We're in a position that we can look back at the past film year and have a conversation about what's to come," she said. "This is a great opportunity to do both."

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