AFI Fest Director of Programming, Sarah Harris

Today, Reel 360’s favorite film festival – AFI Fest Sponsored by Audi. The complete program includes 125 titles (55 features, 3 episodic, 33 shorts, 19 Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI FEST shorts and 15 AFI Conservatory Showcase shorts) of which 53% are directed by women, 39% are directed by BIPOC and 17% are directed by LBGTQ+.

This year’s program represents 35 countries and includes 7 World Premieres. The total film breakdown by section is: Special Presentations (8), Tributes (4), World Cinema (16) New Auteurs (14), Documentary (15), Cinema’s Legacy (4), Short Films (33),  Meet the Press Film Festival at AFI FEST (19) and AFI Conservatory Showcase (15). 

The choice of film can be attributed to Director of Programming Sarah Harris. Sarah leads the curation of films and events for American Film Institutes’ three annual festival programs: AFI FEST in Los Angeles, AFI DOCS in Washington, D.C. and the NBC News-partnered Meet the Press Film Festival.

Sarah has been a film festival programmer for over fifteen years, working with AFI in various roles since 2012. Harris was part of the founding staff of the Dallas Film Society, host of the Dallas International Film Festival, where she was previously the Senior Programmer for over a decade and helped grow DIFF into a major cultural event.

As a consultant, Harris programmed films with the Sundance Film Festival, Denver Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Aspen ShortsFest, Los Angeles Film Festival and Vimeo. Harris became the Coordinating Producer for Cinema Eye Honors 2019, which celebrates the craft of non-fiction filmmaking, after serving many years on its nomination committee.

Reel 360 had a chance to speak with Sarah before the festival kicks off tonight with the world premiere of I’m Your Woman an upcoming American drama film, directed by Julia Hart and starring Rachel Brosnahan.

The AFI is now the premier festival in LA. It’s one that anyone in film always looks forward to especially because of the galas. Can you take us through how you pivoted to a virtual festival?

We modeled AFI FEST off the great success of AFI DOCS 2020 which is our annual festival held in Washington DC each summer. Our filmmakers, audiences and partners were very happy with it, so we took that experience and built on it to make AFI FEST even more engaging for people to participate.

How many selections did you receive this year and how hard was it choosing the films?

Our programming staff and amazing screening committee watched and considered around 3,000 films for AFI FEST. It’s always a challenge to narrow down a final selection and some films we love don’t make it for various reasons.

The program is a giant puzzle to put together and we talk through all the layers of what pieces are coming together and what elements we’re missing. We’re committed to a high standard of programming and supporting new and interesting voices.

With theater chains essentially screening studio tentpoles, festivals are now being overtaken by the Netflixes, Amazons, Hulus and smaller studios. How does an aspiring filmmaker with no name get into a festival as prestigious as AFI?

The short films in any festival are truly the place for discovery. Many of the “new filmmakers” making features on the festival circuit today have actually been making short films or commercial work for years, honing their craft.

The short films in AFI FEST are a great place to discover storytellers taking risks, exploring interesting ideas and making a name for themselves in the filmmaking community.

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What are you looking forward to the most out of this year’s group of films?

Many films lost opportunities for premieres or screenings earlier this year. Some of these films cannot wait for a theater to reopen and I’m so excited the filmmakers that finally get their work in front of audiences. I’m proud that AFI FEST provides a platform for those projects while creating a sense of community safely at home.

Typically Audi does something spectacular on top of the Roosevelt roof. What are they doing this year for it?

We are hosting a one-time only drive-in event at the Rose Bowl this year with Audi – there will be a Drive Thru Photo Op for guests as they arrive before a screening of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI…

It’s amazing the percentage of female and BIPOC helmed films there are this year. What led to the support of these kinds of films?

We have always been strong supporters of films from different voices and perspectives and this year is no different. We’re interested in films that inspire and spark conversation and the program reflects our high standard of programming and the films we want to celebrate.

As Director of Programming what makes you most proud?

There’s something for everything in at AFI FEST this year and that’s always something I strive for as a programmer. With the virtual festival, there’s more opportunity for filmmakers to engage with the festival and audiences to discover more films they may not otherwise get to see.

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How are you going to relax after the festival?

I’m going to tend to my fall garden and read my overdue library books.

You register here for the AFI Fest Sponsored by Audi.

Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @colinthewriter1