Indie Focus: After losing its top leadership, what's next for AFI Fest?
Many in the film festival world were surprised on Monday by the seemingly sudden announcement that AFI Fest artistic director Rose Kuo, festival producer David Rogers and head of press and public relations at the American Film Institute John Wildman were all leaving the organization.
In the 2009 edition of the AFI Fest, which ran Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, the trio had worked with a drastically reduced budget, changes in venue and far fewer films on exhibition (67, down from from the previous year's 100). The event was nevertheless considered by many a rousing success.
The radical idea of not charging for tickets, underwriting the festival largely through sponsorship money, drew surprisingly strong crowds to even the most difficult and obscure films. The departures announced Monday seem to point to a rift between the AFI Fest and the larger organization of the American Film Institute, which, as reported by The Times in October, had been feeling financial pressures even before the recession.
On Tuesday morning, Nancy Harris, chief operating officer of AFI, noted via e-mail that no official announcement has yet come from the organization, adding, "When you produce an event like AFI Fest for 24 years, change is inevitable. We know Rose and Dave will continue to do great things wherever they set their sights, and we're excited to announce our new AFI Fest team and details in the coming weeks."
Speaking Monday evening, Wildman said: "I think by every single account, the free festival was a success."
"It was one of the most exciting festivals I've been a part of," said Kuo, in a separate interview on Monday. "And it's a model that should continue and other festivals should look at. I think it's completely sustainable. That's what's remarkable about it."
The 2009 edition of the festival featured such high-profile awards hopefuls as "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "The Road" and "A Single Man" alongside international films and less obviously crowd-pleasing titles such as "Ne change rein," "A Lake" and "Trash Humpers."
Quo said that AFI wanted her, Rogers and Wildman to work on the 2010 installment of the festival, but her creative team wasn't interested in producing it again under the same financial limitations.
"We almost put on this festival in spite of itself," said Wildman. "Even with what we had to work with from a budget standpoint, a staffing standpoint, to be able to deliver what we did, you look at that and you go, I don't know what else we can do with this one."
The trio each said they left voluntarily and individually, and had stopped working for AFI Fest/AFI at different times. The news broke Monday following a brief announcement posted on the website IndieWire.
"We left and [AFI] didn't make any announcement," Kuo said. "And then we all thought, 'Gee, all of us are about ready to go to Sundance,' and we kind of wanted people to know that we're all free agents."
"To be frank, to be able to pull off something with these hurdles, it really requires a ton of favors, trading on personal relationships, and you get one or two tries at that," said Wildman as to why they were all leaving after what seemed to be a successful edition of the festival. "And then your friends and colleagues, the people you have relationships with, then they go, 'This isn't special anymore, this is your usual mode of operation.' And I don't think there was a big interest to do that."
Though declining to give exact figures, Kuo, Rogers and Wildman all say that even with the reduced festival budget and free ticketing initiative, the 2009 festival came in on-budget.
"I think after this year, I don't know that I can go to that wall again," said Rogers in a separate interview, "bringing that same delivery level and level of professionalism that everybody has come to expect out of AFI Fest. At that budget number we had been reduced down to, I couldn't with 100% assurance say absolutely, we can do that again."
The departures would seem to leave programmers Lane Kneedler and Jacqueline Lyanga running the show at AFI Fest, with film critic turned programmer Robert Koehler, who just came on board for the 2009 edition, something of a question mark. Kneedler did take to his Twitter account Monday night to say, "Just as an fyi, AFI Fest isn't going anywhere. [Jacqueline Lyanga] and I are still here and hope to see you all in November!"
The past two years have seen shake-ups and personnel changes at a host of major festivals, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sundance, Denver, South by Southwest, New York, Tribeca, Toronto and Cannes, some of which have been speculated to trace back in part to conflicts between programmers and administrators, personalities and purse-strings.
Wildman voiced the question that might best sum up the current situation. "How much of a priority AFI Fest is at AFI? Hard to tell."