Thursday night’s AFI Fest closer Black Swan fell in line with similar past fest triumphs at Venice, Telluride and Toronto earning huge applause and lots of Oscar talk, especially for star Natalie Portman whom director Darren Aronofsky introduced to the crowd before the screening along with her co-stars Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. He particularly tried to goose the applause meter for Ryder, who makes a strong impression in a small role as a fading diva. “Come on people, I mean it’s Winona Ryder,” he said while she tried to make the long run to the front. “I guess people in Los Angeles are used to seeing movie stars. It’s not that way in New York.” He then really got pumped when he spotted a certain action hero in the audience. “Sylvester Stallone is here tonight!” Arononfsky was also excited to have the film premiere at “the Chinese Mann, my favorite theatre” but seemed a little flustered trying to remember all the key people to thank. Until his producer Scott Frankin nudged him he completely forgot Phoenix Pictures, which had started development on the film ten years ago. Phoenix’s  Mike Medavoy and Arnold Messer are among the film’s (4) producers and David Thwaites and Brad Fischer exec produced (2 of 8 credited). Afterwards Medavoy and Fischer were soaking up praise in the lobby and Fischer said he kidded Darren about the “oversight”. Fischer said it was true the movie, originally an All About Eve-ish backstage story called The Understudy, almost completely fell apart just a few weeks before production until the other credited producer Brian Oliver came in and saved the day, a fact Aronofsky did not forget in his opening remarks. Fischer said Aronofsky was originally attached right after he made his first splash with Pi but it took a decade before it came full circle back to him. It really is amazing that any movie not shot in front of a green screen ever gets made in this town.

Fischer also praised Fox Searchlight for their campaign so far. He said he’s noticed they have also done a great job with 127 Hours, which opened to big numbers in LA and NY last weekend. Maybe if a few people start fainting during the graphic scene (not a spoiler) where Portman breaks her legs they can drum up some extra publicity ala the Danny Boyle film. The screaming elderly women in front of me jumped so high I thought they were going to have a heart attack. Whether the psychological horror film about the mental disintegration of a perfection-seeking ballet ingénue is too dark and grand guignol  for older Academy members remains to be seen but I spotted several of the “bread and butter” academy voters in attendance. At the way overcrowded Hollywood Roosevelt afterparty one 80+  former winner was effusive in his reaction and said he thought it was great. Also there, Aronofsky told me he was concerned that from where he was standing in the back that the sound mix was a bit off in the theatre (not from my vantage point — it sounded incredible, particularly Clint Mansell’s masterful musical scoring). Still he was thrilled with the response, especially from guess who? “Sly Stallone told me I fucking loved it’, you can’t beat that,” he said.

Fox Searchlight had to be happy with the reaction both in the theatre and at the party. With Never Let Me Go (a box office disappointment), Conviction, 127 Hours and Black Swan (opening Dec 1) the specialty unit is out once again to show their Oscar savvy moves. And there’s already talk about next season with Terence Malick’s long-awaited The Tree Of Life reportedly set for a May 27 opening, a sure sign Searchlight is going to take it to Cannes earlier that month (whether they want to admit it yet or not). Alexander Payne’s George Clooney drama The Descendants also looks like it may be headed to the South of France. I ran into one of that film’s key players in the lobby who said he had heard of “a Cannes plan just a couple of days ago.” If so it will be Payne’s second trip up the Palais steps. He was in competition with About Schmidt in 2002. If the Cannes berth does happen I am told The Descendants domestic release would still be held until around this time next Fall for maximum Oscar potential. In other words you can place your bets now that we’ll probably see it opening or closing the 2011 AFI Fest.

In that regard I  caught up with AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale  who was thrilled about the response to his week long festival  which hands out free tickets and seemed to have a red carpet gala for some potential awards contender every single night. It’s like a clearing house for Oscar hopefuls. Among the titles that benefitted from the AFI connection were opener, Love And Other Drugs, The King’s Speech, Blue Valentine, Barney’s Version, Rabbit Hole, Casino Jack, Made In Dagenham, Company Men and Paramount’s “secret (first ever public) screening” Tuesday night of The Fighter. A very impressive amount of  stars and filmmakers made the scene daily. The Weinstein Company used the occasion of the well-timed (awards-wise) November fest for three premieres in five days. “The distributors do seem to be lining up for those slots,” Gazzale said. “I think this has been, without question, our best fest yet and since we are a non-profit the money it generates goes to a lot of worthwhile programs throughout the year,” although he agrees something has to be done about the way the various lines of ticketholders, standbys and industry guests are handled. It seemed to be a constant zoo out there on Hollywood Blvd.