With a lineup that ranges from awards-season Hollywood premieres to a formidable group of international auteurs, the AFI Fest has carved out a schizophrenic but fruitful identity on the festival circuit.
But as important as it is as a key launching pad for Oscar contenders, and as effectively as it serves as a Hollywood landing strip for hard-to-find, Cannes-tested art movies, it may be best known as something else: the free film festival.
AFI Fest, which kicks off Thursday night at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and runs through Nov. 8, has been giving away its tickets for the last four years. The decision, which was made possible when sponsor Audi pledged enough support to enable the nonprofit American Film Institute to stage the festival without depending on ticket sales, boosted attendance figures to 75,000 over eight days last year.
Festival director Jacqueline Lyanga expects to pass that number by about 10,000 this year – but, she told TheWrap in an interview this week, giving away tickets (along with selling some VIP patron packages and $250 "Cinepass Express" badges) has its own problems.
"Over the years, we've found that it's almost more difficult to give away free tickets than it is to sell tickets," Lyanga said. "It's a process of trial and error."
The first few years they made tickets available for free, she admitted, the demand overwhelmed the festival's online ticketing system. This year, the festival instituted a preregistration system that randomly allocated two-hour windows during which each user could order tickets. "That definitely helped with our server load," she said.
But even the new, improved system had its glitches: On Sunday, patrons who went to the AFI Fest box office at Hollywood & Highland to redeem their online orders found that the fest had run out of ticket stock and couldn't print any more tickets until it got a new supply Monday morning.
Still, Lyanga said the move to free tickets enabled the festival to program more adventurously, because patrons are more willing to take a chance on an unknown film if it's not going to cost them anything (beyond the parking fees at Hollywood & Highland, which can mount quickly).
"Moving to a free festival in 2009 gave us a lot more freedom in our programming," she said. "Of course, we want full theaters. But we don't have to worry as much about that now."
As befits a festival that takes place in the tourist-heavy heart of Hollywood, and one whose headquarters is located in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where the first Academy Awards ceremony took place 85 years ago, AFI Fest also functions as a stop on the awards circuit. While most of the screenings will take place in the Chinese 6 multiplex, the huge Grauman's Chinese will play host to almost-nightly galas and tributes screening and saluting films and performers with Oscar aspirations.
This year's festival landed two major premieres: Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock," with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, will open the fest on Thursday night, while Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" will serve as the closing-night attraction on Nov. 8.
Other galas are Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," Walter Salles' "On the Road," DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians" and Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" (left), which will be coupled with a tribute to Marion Cotillard.
Among the special screenings, one step down in pomp and circumstance from the galas, are the Oscar contenders "Silver Linings Playbook" and "The Impossible," the documentaries "The Central Park Five" and "West of Memphis," Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut "Quartet," the Cannes sensation "Holy Motors," Sally Potter's "Ginger and Rosa" and the documentary "Room 237," an unconventional look at conspiracy theories that have sprung up around Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
If those are the highest-profile films at the festival, the meat of AFI Fest lies in the World Cinema program, which consists of 31 films from around the world, including 12 official submissions in the Oscar foreign-language race.
Michael Haneke's "Amour" tops the list, which also includes Oscar contenders "A Royal Affair," "Beyond the Hills," "Caesar Must Die," "Kon-Tiki," "Pieta" and "War Witch" (right), as well as a number of notable non-Oscar entries, among them Peter Strickland's "Berberian Sound Studio," Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways," Abbas Kiarostami's "Like Someone in Love," Carlos Reygadas' "Post Tenebras Lux" and Wayne Blair's "The Sapphires."
"The best of world cinema has always been a significant part of the festival," Lyanga said. "We spend the year going to Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, Cannes, Locarno, Karlovy Vary, Venice, Toronto. … And we try to carefully curate the films we see in those festivals.
"In that way, we have perfect timing, because we come at the end of the year and can contextualize the year in cinema."
Foreign films also dominate some of the other sections: Drew Denny's comedy "The Most Fun I've Ever Had With My Pants On" is the only American film in the Breakthrough section, and Antonio Campos' "Simon Killer" the only one in the New Auteurs program.
But the Young Americans section includes new films from indie stalwarts Joe Swanberg ("All the Light in the Sky"), Mike Ott ("Pearblossom Hwy") and Bill and Turner Ross ("Tchoupitoulas"), while the Midnight section includes the intriguing anthology "ABCs of Death," in which 26 different directors (or directorial teams) tackle short films dealing with death and keyed to letters of the alphabet.
Lyanga also said that the festival might continue its tradition of a surprise screening; two years ago, it had an unannounced sneak of David O. Russell's "The Fighter," while last year it unveiled Steven Soderberg's "Haywire."
"We may be doing a secret screening," she said. "And if we are, we'd be announcing it shortly."
In the end, the 80-plus films will run the gamut, from "Electric Chair" to "Electrick Children," "Kid" to "Kid-Thing," "The Angels' Share" to "Here Comes the Devil," "Ginger and Rosa" to "Rust and Bone" to "Here and There."
And more than 170 filmmakers are expected to come to Hollywood to attend the screenings – though, admits Lyanga, Hurricane Sandy threw a monkey wrench into some plans.
"Some of them are supposed to be coming in from the East Coast, and a lot are from Europe and are scheduled to come through New York. So we've been paying close attention to the storm, and hoping that they all make it in."