Haven't Heard Much from the AFI Fest Yet? Oh, You Will.

We are so looking forward to putting away a pack of smokes with David Lynch at the AFI.
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A Friend of Unfair Park was remarking only yesterday that he's seen little promotion for the inaugural AFI Dallas International Film Festival, save for last September's initial announcement and this week's media blitz accompanying the release of the festival's schedule and guest list. Though the festival's only 20 days away, there have been few indications around town that this city's about to screen 191 movies over a 10-day period, during which the likes of Lauren Bacall, Morgan Freeman, David Lynch and an ever-expanding celeb roster will come through Dallas.

By that we mean we've spotted no billboards or bus boards, seen no TV spots and heard no radio advertisements. And yet, as AFI's co-founder and artistic director Michael Cain told us a few days back, "We've got to count on 80 percent of the audience coming from right here." And that 80 percent will have to fill 200 screenings and panels-lectures in several venues scattered from downtown Dallas to the campuses of the University of North Texas and Texas Christian University. Though no one yet knows the exact attendance numbers AFI will need to hit to consider this debut a success, the early guess is: a lot.

"We expect certain events to be jam-packed," says Tearlach Hutcheson, who came aboard as AFI Dallas' managing director. "And certain events to be less so."

So when, precisely, will AFI start is advertising blitz? Hutcheson says it actually started yesterday, with spots running on more than 20 radio stations. (Clear Channel just signed on as a Premium Level sponsor, as did WFAA-Channel 8.) Billboards are "going up within the week," he says and TV ads should start running, well, any moment. Indeed, it will appear to go from zero to 60 in the span of a few days; you'll even find AFI's logo on drink coasters in your neighborhood Chili's pretty soon.

"One of the frustrating things about doing a film fest is you do your best to get major talent like Lauren Bacall, who's acknowledged as one of the top 25 screen legends of all time," Hutcheson says. "But with a film festival, you also don't announce your schedule till a month out. So you have to wait for everything else to fall into place. Like, only yesterday we got an e-mail that [Kids in the Hall's] Dave Foley is coming, that Judd Nelson is coming, that Melissa George is coming. First you get people excited editorially about what's going on, then you start the ad campaign. And we're not just doing a film festival. We're launching a product and a brand and getting people aware of the brand."

Hutcheson certainly knows whether Dallas is a viable site for a fest like this: He worked for years at the Inwood Theater and opened the Magnolia in the West Village, and part of his gig for years involved watching the box-office stats and seeing precisely where Dallas stacked up on the art-house scene. "The Magnolia and Angelika are constantly in the top art-house grosses in the nation," he says, "which is phenomenal, given that people who don't come form here have a different opinion of the city." Indeed, Dallas is the seventh-busiest filmgoing town in the country.

But will the locals come to AFI? Well, they do in Toronto and Park City and Austin. Indeed, tickets to public screenings at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival are hard-to-come-by items, selling for hundreds on eBay. AFI can only pray it one day has the same kind of problem. Till then, it's actually going to set up a phone number, soon to be available on its Web site, where folks can call in and talk to an actual person about movies they're considering seeing.

"It appears to me, when I am at Sundance that 70 percent of the people are there for the concept of Sundance -- for the party," says Hutcheson. "They don't go to films. They can't be going to the films, because when I got to the parties it's full of beautiful people, and when I go to the movies it's full of people like me. But at Sundance, I often sit next to locals at screenings, because I am going to the regular screenings, not the ones for press and industry. And Toronto has been successful because the city has embraced the festival. The fest took a turn in style and scope when it embraced the city. That's what we're doing here." --Robert Wilonsky

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