AFI FEST Returns to Paid Ticketing After a Decade of Free Screenings

Photo: Jennifer Verzuh

When LA Film Festival discontinued in 2018 after eighteen years, AFI FEST officially became Los Angeles’ biggest and most important film festival, placing it in a unique position given the city’s status as the media and entertainment centre of the country.

Beyond its location, what has set AFI FEST, now in its 33rd year, apart from other large film festivals in the US with international appeal like Sundance, Telluride and Tribeca is it’s free ticketing. Since 2009, the week-long annual film festival has offered completely free tickets to its guests as well as offering the Cinepass to its members, which placed them in a priority line for seating to screenings and events.

AFI FEST’s then artistic director Rose Kuo told LA Weekly in 2009 they were looking to make a “bold move” in a time when the economy was severely suffering, and as a result independent films and the festivals that showed them were in a precocious place. “It was time to turn the conversation around, to do something somewhat audacious, and to get people excited about indie film,” Kuo said.

This year is a marked shift from that strategy as the festival has returned to paid ticketing as patrons noticed when tickets went on sale recently for members on October 29th and to everyone the following day. The Cinepass is no longer valid and screenings for weekday matinee screenings are $12 to the public and $9 for members, while regular and special screenings are $15/$12, and galas are $20 across the board.

Though a short passage on the website’s ticketing noted the new prices as early as September, AFI FEST didn’t officially alert past patrons to the change until October 18th stating via email, “This new system will make your festival-going experience more reliable and will allow you the best possible opportunity to see the films that interest you.” The organisation has not responded to requests from Screen Queens for an interview to elaborate further on the motivation behind the change.

Lucy May, a 25 year-old movie theatre employee and aspiring film editor who has attended the festival since 2018 with friends due to it being a free event, was startled to discover that the event would be ticketed. Beyond the initial shock, she was frustrated that as at that time (September 19th) no statement had been made by the organisation regarding the shift on social media or through other outlets.

“[I was] upset definitely,” May said. “Also, I felt a slight disdain for AFI at the lack of announcement. It felt like information that was being quietly swept under the rug for unsuspecting attendees to eventually discover.” While May says she still plans on attending the festival, it will be a much different experience for her from last year, when she saw over twenty films. “The amount of films is definitely going to go down for me. It’s going to have to just because however much it’s going to be I probably couldn’t afford to see quite as many. So maybe cut in half,” she said.

As an AFI member, Allison McCulloch was also initially discouraged by the development, though unsurprised. As a result of the reduction in member benefits she does not plan on renewing her membership after it expires and plans to attend less screenings this year than in years past when ticketing was free and she could utilise her Cinepass.

“I was kind of, not really angry, but disappointed at first because AFI is kind of like Christmas in a way as AFI is one of my favorite film festivals,” she said. “And so [with] this, I was just going to have to scale back this year.”

While AFI has done away with the Cinepass in its traditional format, they are offering other passes to members and non-members but at a higher price point. Their Film Pass allows for admission to all regular screenings, but excludes galas and special screenings, a new restriction. They also have a Priority Pass on-sale which gives guests access to all regular and special screenings, but again excludes galas.

McCulloch said she didn’t consider purchasing either pass due to the cost. As opposed to the $60 lowest level annual membership, the Film and Priority Pass are priced at $250 and $500 respectively for non-members with a ten percent off discount for members. While she won’t be able to see as many films due to the increased cost, McCulloch says she understands and is just grateful the festival was free for ten years.

“It’s completely fair that they’re charging. In fact, I was more surprised when they stopped charging back in 2009. It was kind of like a heaven sent gift so I enjoyed it while it lasted,” McCulloch said, noting that this would likely help decrease the intense crowds and long lines that she’s experienced at the festival in recent years

Journalist and film critic Priscilla Page also noted on her Twitter that she believed AFI moving back away from paid ticketing would make the festival easier to access. “Free tickets were a relatively new thing for AFI [F]est [and] it made it a lot more difficult for people to get them,” she wrote. “[P]eople would grab tickets up, not necessarily use them, [and] lines for screenings were first come, first serve. [I]t was hell.”

While May acknowledges that it makes more financial sense for AFI to be a paid event she worries that it will make audiences less inclined to seek out smaller, lesser known titles as they had in the past. Of the festival’s one hundred and forty-two titles, fifty-two countries are represented and many films come from first-time filmmakers. “As a free festival it was much more accessible bringing especially independent films, very independent films, [and foreign films to the public, as public as it could be,” May said. “But now the selection is going to go down quite a lot because what you’re willing to pay for versus what you’re willing to see for free.”

McCulloch expressed the same concern, saying that she would take more risks in the past and see films to simply fill a time-slot that she’d later be very glad she caught, like Sean Baker’s debut Starlet. “The only problem I really foresee is I’m going to take far fewer chances with the films,” she said. “There were some interesting looking films, like Saint Maud for instance, but I’m not going to shell out 12 dollars on the off chance that it might be good.”

AFI Fest is held from November 14th – 21st 2019


by Jennifer Verzuh

Jennifer Verzuh is an LA based critic and writer who’s had her work published at Little White Lies, Girls on Top, Much Ado About Cinema, Starry Constellation Magazine and The Reel Honey. She’s worked at film festivals across the US and is currently involved in post-production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie Nashville. You can contact her here:

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