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In 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation to create the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he vowed to launch a new center that would preserve the history of American film and train its next generation of storytellers. Since the American Film Institute’s inception two years later, few people have been as central to its mission as Jean Picker Firstenberg, who served as president and CEO from 1980-2007, and is now president emerita. The co-author of a new book, Becoming AFI: 50 Years Inside the American Film Institute (written with James Hindman), she spoke to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month about her experiences there.
You worked in Washington before Hollywood. What did you learn there that helped you?
They’re very different worlds. But you have to learn the players. Life is about personal relationships. You need to understand what each person you’re dealing with has to handle. In Washington, we had to work with the National Council for the Arts. They were all presidential appointments confirmed by the Senate. And what I learned was: Count your votes. Because your grant had to be presented by the staff and approved by the Council. You needed every friend you could get.
Is that true in Hollywood, too?
Of course. But here you’re dealing with the heads of the studios, the heads of the networks. You’re dealing with the artists, the men and women behind the cameras. You’re dealing with philanthropists, people who are giving you money.
Which group is easier? Washington or Hollywood?
They’re both tough. A lot depends on the particular moment in time. How is the economy? What are the forces that are putting pressure on each group? Whenever the economy goes down, corporations make cutbacks. Whenever there’s a change in the White House, everything changes on Capitol Hill.
Your best moment at the AFI?
I loved the Back to the Rose Garden event. It was 1989, and all the heads of the studios were going to be there. [Just beforehand] Jack Valenti [head of the MPAA] called me up and said: “Jeannie, we have a problem. All the heads of studio are coming, and they all want to sit with the President. What do we do?” I went to bed, shocked. And Jack solved it. He put the first lady at another table, and he had two head tables. And everybody was happy.
The toughest moment was 9/11. I was at the gym, and I saw on television what was happening. I have chills just thinking about it. I called the campus and we notified security. The next day, we went back. We opened the campus, and we just sat and talked together, all the staff and all the fellows. We had a wonderful woman, Adrian Borneman, who worked with George [AFI founding director George Stevens Jr.], and I remember her saying to me, as we were leaving: “I’ve never seen you look so tired.” I had this feeling, sitting up there, that we were expected to know something that others didn’t. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Did you become close to any student filmmaker?
I found the students incredibly open and vulnerable.
Aren’t all artists vulnerable?
Especially the young ones. But actually, I was really close to Patty Jenkins [director of Wonder Woman]. And the reason is that, after she made her thesis film, she went to a program we have where you meet with producers [and give] a 10-minute talk about what ideas you have.
One of those pitch fests.
I hate that term. I refuse to use it. And she met a friend of mine, [producer] Brad Wyman, and said: “I want to tell a story about a woman serial killer.” And they made Monster. I think Patty is Wonder Woman. She was older [than most students] when she came to AFI. She’d had experience. But she’s never lost that sense of who she is.
Is it still tougher for women?
What’s the AFI doing to help that?
Well, we have been on the barricades for a long time [with a Directing Workshop for Women, among other things]. But it’s the same in every profession: It is simply misogyny, the lack of comfort with giving a woman a large budget full of responsibility. What’s so distressing to me is that this has happened again in Silicon Valley. I thought we were past it. It’s the exact same thing. We haven’t changed.
Have you experienced misogyny yourself?
Not very much.
I have no idea. I guess I’m just too much — I don’t know, maybe I’m just too tough.
Looking back at your time at the AFI, is there one decision you’re most proud of?
We had to stand on our own two feet, without federal funding. This was in the mid-’90s. I knew federal funding wouldn’t last. It had lasted for 30 years; I knew it wasn’t going to last for 40. But where were we going to find $1 million to $2 million every year? The answer was, we wanted to be a national institution. How do you create a national voice? Well, the 100th anniversary of the motion picture was coming up, and we felt if we could create this idea of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies [and do it as a TV special], we could reach people. It had huge risk. We had to borrow money to be able to produce the show. We had to roll the dice. And it worked. The trustees’ expertise made this possible, especially Fred Pierce, former head of ABC. And that’s how people know the AFI.
Is there anything you regret?
I wish we had been able to have a presence in more locations.
In America or outside?
But not outside?
I think that’s a bit too ambitious for me. We had opportunities to do things in other countries, and we were very cautious about them. We’re really a small entity and you husband your resources.
You mentioned the “AFI 100″ list. Which film did you vote for?
If you chose a film today, would it be the same?
I would never tell you, because we’re probably going to do it again.
Our tastes change.
The world changes. Our world changes. It’s been a very tough century so far, but maybe all centuries start out in a difficult way.
How should the AFI change in the next 10 years?
What’s terrifying to me is that technology is going to change more in the next 10 years than it’s changed in the last 20. How do you prepare for that? How do you work for that?
How do you?
Well, you pray a lot. (Laughs.) I think that you stay true to the fundamental raison d’être: “Educate today’s audiences and tomorrow’s artists.”
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