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Film Festivals: London vs. AFI

Film Festivals: London vs. AFI

The London Film Fest wrapped up 16 days just as the AFI Fest got started with its nine-day run. The two fests offer a revealing contrast.

London, under the direction of Sandra Hebron, expanded its operations this year with a three-year cash infusion of $4.6 million pounds a year from the U.K. Film Council. The LFF raised the international profile of the fest (which screens 191 features and 130 shorts) by adding a marketing budget and press conferences for gala titles, and flying in 25 foreign film journalists (including me). They also mounted their first-ever awards night separate from the closing night film, with new awards including best film (Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet).

The big unknown: how well the largely local fest would do with ticket sales in a recession. The answer: in response to a well-promoted strong lineup (which included a plethora of films directed by women, from Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Lone Scherfig’s An Education to such first-time helmers as Jordan Scott (Cracks) and Sam Taylor Wood (closer Nowhere Boy), LFF wound up selling tickets well ahead of the previous year, winding up with a 50/50 split on revenues between sponsors and ticket sales.

“Cinema does well in recession,” says Hebron, “particularly festivals. People are seeking out films that may never get release, and are hungry for a collective experience.” Of the new titles that broke out at LFF, No One Knows About Persian Cats grabbed a standing ovation. (It’s playing at AFI, too.) IndieWIRE’s Peter Knegt wraps up the LFF.

Meanwhile, American film fests have been hit with reduced corporate sponsors, and some like Jackson Hole have shut down. The AFI Fest looked at its options, saw what it had coming in from such sponsors as Audi, and decided to take another, surprising route. Faced with the same unknown– box office revenues–artistic director Rose Kuo, inspired by Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer, took the idea of offering movies for free to AFI head Bob Gazzale. He liked it.

The AFI Fest slashed its Kodak Connect program, went from more than 100 to 67 features, from five to one panel, from five to three theaters, from two to one showing of each film. The risk for any festival downsizing is to risk losing appeal to sponsors, sending a danger signal. “Sponsors expect something in return,” says Kuo, “a bigger press play. More people participate, you get more in-kind donations.”

But this move inspired people to help the AFI. Tickets have been gobbled up by the public (the fest keeps a few on hand for last-minute rush lines). “We’re not selling one ticket,” says Kuo, although the fest is offering $500 patron passes which come with tickets to two gala screenings. Support for the fest via patron passes has been strong, she said. (Here’s LA Weekly’s Scott Foundas.)

While some of these AFI Fest movies have already screened, I do recommend that at some point you see:

Red Riding Trilogy
City of Life and Death
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
The White Ribbon
Fish Tank
The Last Station
The Messenger
The Road
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
A Single Man
Looking for Eric

[Photo of AFI’s Robert Koehler and Rose Kuo by Kevin Scanlon]

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