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As the American Film Institute celebrates its 40th anniversary and its CEO and president of 27 years, Jean Picker Firstenberg, prepares to retire, the organization is in transition. And that’s exactly where Firstenberg hopes it will always be.
“The mission of the institute itself hasn’t changed since its inception,” Firstenberg says, “but in this incredible and changing time of storytelling, you have to be as relevant tomorrow as you were yesterday. Everything is quicker now with film, television and digital media, and that’s exciting.”
In keeping with its careful balance of celebrating both the past of film and television and encouraging future leaders, the institute, which is the largest nonprofit exhibitor in the U.S., offers a wide range of programs. One of its most-heralded creations is the Los Angeles-based AFI Conservatory, a two-year MFA program devoted to fostering students’ collaboration with master filmmakers. “The conservatory is an extraordinary place for men and women who dream of effectively telling stories, and we’re not a large university, so that’s the only thing we do,” Firstenberg says. “We focus on teaching the art of storytelling using moving images, and there’s a great value to that narrow focus.”
Equally important are the institute’s retrospectives, like the much-lauded “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Movies” series, launched 10 years ago to honor the first century of filmmaking and now a franchise, and Silverdocs, a documentary festival jointly held by AFI and Discovery Channel each June (this year, June 12-17) at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md. And then, of course, there’s the AFI Life Achievement Award, selected by the board of trustees, which is helmed by Howard Stringer, and the board of directors, which is co-chaired by director Jon Avnet and executive John F. Cooke.
Initiated in 1973, the Life Achievement Award originally was intended to recognize great past accomplishments in film or television that enriched American culture. In 1993, the AFI extended the criteria to include individuals with active careers. The first recipient was John Ford in 1973, followed by such honorees as Dustin Hoffman, Gene Kelly, David Lean, Gregory Peck, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep. Al Pacino will be its 35th honoree.
“He represents such an amazing commitment to his art,” Firstenberg says of Pacino. “I think ‘Looking for Richard’ (the actor’s 1996 documentary about staging a production of William Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’) says it all about Al Pacino. He’s an actor’s actor, someone who has devoted his life to this in the most generous way. And that, in a sense, is what AFI stands for,” she continues. “So, what a great privilege to be able to celebrate his passion.”
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