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AFI FEST Director Says 2020 Virtual Festival ‘Levels the Playing Field’ for Filmmakers

In this unusual pandemic year, AFI FEST programmed 50 percent more documentaries and opened ticketing to anyone in the U.S.

My Psychedelic Love Story

“My Psychedelic Love Story”

Showtime Documentary Films

AFI FEST is the surviving Hollywood film festival, a destination for late-breaking, Oscar-seeking movies such as Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” Last year, organizers decided to move the date from November to October. If there was ever a year to launch a film festival later than usual, 2020 was it — but AFI FEST held to its planned mid-October launch.

“I did not know what to expect,” said AFI FEST director Michael Lumpkin in a phone interview. “We made a pre-pandemic decision to do October, and then in March when everything shifted we did revisit that decision.”

After analyzing the pros and cons, he concluded that it’s easier to piggyback on the same publicity tour that brings talent to the Venice, Toronto, New York and London film festivals. “We decided keep it there,” he said.

Lumpkin and his programmers also had their hands full. After pandemic closures began this spring, the first order of business was figuring out how to turn June’s five-day AFI DOCS in Washington, D.C. into a virtual film festival. It was a success, and also served as a proving ground — invaluable research, since there was no down time before they had to repeat the process for AFI FEST.

“By the end of late June early July,” Lumpkin said, “we had a pretty good sense of where things were, that Los Angeles was unlikely to open theaters in time for AFI FEST. We knew what we had to do and what a virtual festival was because we had success on DOCS. So this was what needed to happen.”

Like other festivals, tickets to the AFI screenings and Q&As are available throughout the U.S. At this writing, only 30 percent of the sales come from California.

"I'm Your Woman"

“I’m Your Woman”

Amazon

In this pandemic year, with many high-profile specialty and studio titles pushed to 2021, the AFI lineup is familiar, with a sprinkling of world premieres, including Julia’s Hart’s opening-night title “I’m Your Woman” (Amazon Studios), a feminist mob-wife thriller starring Rachel Brosnahan. “It’s a great, engaging movie,” said Lumpkin, “that spoke to us in a deep way to what’s happening now, the year we’ve been through, issues of family and home and race.”

AFI will give Oscar-nominee Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay”) a well-deserved career tribute and screen episodes of her latest work, BBC series “A Suitable Boy” (October 23, Netflix). “The scope and span of her films is pretty amazing,” said Lumpkin.

With no theaters to book, AFI had enough money in the budget to mount one big physical event, an October 19 drive-in screening for Venice breakout and Oscar contender “One Night In Miami.” There’s also a number of Sundance films that, without release dates, could take advantage of an AFI showcase, like IFC’s well-reviewed “Farewell Amor.”

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, and Jayme Lawson appear in Farewell Amor by Ekwa Msangi, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Bruce Francis Cole.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Farewell Amor”

Bruce Francis Cole

The 2020 festival will play fewer films than past editions (124 this year, 142 in 2019); like last year, more than 50 percent are directed by women. There are 50 percent more documentaries this year, with 15. Lumpkin tracks them all year, so he knew which ones would be finished in time for AFI. They include several from Showtime, among them doc series “The Reagans,” which Matt Tyrnauer finished during the pandemic; and closing-night title “My Psychedelic Love Story,” Errol Morris’ swinging-’60s tale from the ex-girlfriend of LSD guru Timothy Leary.

The virtual festival also made it possible to bring in filmmakers who couldn’t leave their countries in the past, like activist Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi (“Downstream to Kinshasa”). “We decided to put the red carpet galas on the shelf this year and do special presentations,” said Lumpkin. “The virtual festival evens the playing field, and made it possible for us to do more documentaries in the program. It was great on closing night to be able to showcase the world premiere of a master documentary filmmaker.”

There is a downside to AFI’s mid-October slot: Since most countries are still figuring out their Oscar submissions, the festival lacks the usual level of foreign-language contenders. “Apples” from Greece may wind up an Oscar contender, and Switzerland did submit “My Little Sister,” starring Nina Hoss, which debuted back in Berlin.

“Oscar movies are definitely important to us,” said Lumpkin, “but the rest of program is as well. We’re not just looking at that component but the entire nature of the program, wanting it to be the best possible.”

Like all virtual festivals, everyone misses the live energy. Lumpkin said he is making the best of it.

“I miss the most the live component of being in a theater, being able to witness the audience’s experience of a film, being able to bring a filmmaker onstage and their cast and show them live appreciation,” he said. “But at DOCS, there was buzz. Those things did happen, even in a virtual setting.”

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