By Brian Brooks
Even as talk mounts that festivals may take on a larger role in the future for film distribution, the festival industry continues to experience flux. For the second time in just over two years, the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles is enduring a leadership shift. Apparently facing a tight budget, Artistic Director Rose Kuo and Festival Producer David Rogers, in addition to the event’s Head of Press and Public Relations John Wildman, are all leaving the festival, the three announced Monday afternoon.
Their exit comes on the heels of what many participants and audiences considered a successful 2009 event. Despite a move from the Archlight to the Mann Chinese theaters on Hollywood and Highland as well as a downsizing of films programmed, the festival managed to lure full house audiences to its event with free screenings. “At the beginning of the year, we knew it would be an economically challenging year,” Kuo told indieWIRE back in November. “We were concerned about sponsorship and even who would buy passes or even individual tickets to see a film they may consider risky.” In the re-organization for the 2009 event, the fest featured 57 films from the previous year’s 100.
“We came in on budget, and this was a festival with a highly reduced budget,” David Rogers - who managed the fest’s budget - told iW Monday evening. “We were able to keep the delivery of AFI Fest ‘09 on par despite a drastically reduced budget.”
Rogers said AFI told both he and Kuo that they wanted the team to produce an event on a similar budget as the previous year, but they were hesitant to take on another year under the same tightly budgeted circumstances.
“The three of us asked for more favors then we like to think about,” Rogers said about last year’s event. “I think we weren’t prepared to continue with the same expectation. I didn’t think I could commit that personal time, and I don’t think I could expect those favors again.” Rogers went on to praise the festival’s sponsors, including its main sponsor Audi, as well as its vendors who offered services to the festival despite its financial constraints.
“I think going back to do it a second time [would be difficult]. We worked with two-thirds less staff. Since ‘06 when I came in, we never had this low of a staff. The three of us were able to rally around this idea of a free festival and everyone rallied around this idea too, but to do it again, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to ask [vendors and staff] for the same thing. So I felt it was a good time for me to step back and say I was proud of it, but it’s time to move on.” Rogers said he hopes to work with Kuo and Wildman going forward, saying their partnership had been ideal. He added that the three have been talking about future projects.
“Rose [Kuo] and Dave [Rogers] are going to be the ‘Valentino’ of festivals, they’re going out on top,” said AFI’s Head of Press and Public Relations John Wildman, referring to Matt Tyrnauer’s doc, “Valentino: The Last Emperor” which featured the fashion maverick retiring while on top of his game. “Thank goodness it went off successfully, but after every festival, you think, ‘what are you going to do next? What are we given going into it?’” Wildman said referring to AFI’s allotment for the 2010 edition.
“It’s certainly not the only festival dealing with this type of reality, but if this is the case, we feel that we’ve taken [the festival] to the limit and therefore it’s time to turn it over and let someone else take their shot at this,” Wildman added.
The departures of the three AFI Fest organizers certainly raises questions about the plan and leadership for the 2010 event.
indieWIRE made calls to AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale and COO Nancy Harris, but neither was available to speak today.
“For me it’s a perfect time to make a change,” Rose Kuo told iW Monday. “I was honored to be a part of the organization and make a contribution. As you know, all festivals are in a state of change. I think we’ve made some meaningful improvements to AFI Fest. I think the free festival was one of the most successful aspects of the [event] that I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. I think we’ve built something special for Los Angeles. We streamlined the staff and made the festival sustainable for the long term and it was a good time to hand it off.”
“There was a marked difference in the philosophy, intent and programming of the festival,” added Wildman praising Kuo’s stewardship of the festival since she took over more than two years ago. “This year was the culmination on what had begun in 2007 as a sea change.”
AFI Fest, which takes place in late October through early November is only one component of the American Film Institute, a non-profit arts organization founded in 1967. The group operates AFI Conservatory, a highly regarded film school adjacent to L.A.‘s Griffith Park as well as preserving film heritage and its annual awards show. According to a Los Angeles Times article by John Horn published on October 25th, the campus struggles with deferred maintenance issues and needs millions in capital improvements. Still, AFI head Bob Gazzale told the Los Angeles Times that the program remains top notch.
”“The equipment [the students] work on is the finest in the business,” he is quoted as saying in the article.
“AFI has a lot of moving parts,” Wildman said Monday. “The Conservatory, AFI Awards, AFI Fest, SilverDocs (the organization’s documentary festival held annually in Silver Springs, MD in June) and AFI Dallas… Like any organization, there are priorities and things get emphasized when you have a lot going on, and I don’t know that AFI Fest was ever really emphasized. That’s not to say they didn’t support us, but they have a lot under that umbrella.”
Wildman said that he plans to head up the press office at the recently re-branded Dallas International Film Festival. The festival ended its seven-figure three-year agreement with AFI last June.
“The next thing I’d like to do is start something from scratch or retool something existing,” said Kuo. “I’d like to see what we did this past year and see how it could translate to something broader.” She also said she hopes that the team she worked with at AFI Fest will be able to work together going forward. “We’re a great team and we should look for new challenges. With the industry going through such challenges, this is a great opportunity for us to broaden our outreach.”
Kuo declined to talk specifics about financials at this past year’s festival, but she praised her fellow organizer, Dave Rogers who produced the event.
“I think Dave Rogers pulled off a miracle. Given the budget they had, he and his team pulled off a miracle.”