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On Sept. 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson invited a collection of leaders from the arts, entertainment and politics to the White House Rose Garden for the signing of the Arts and Humanities Act. He promised the creation of a National Theater, a National Opera Company, a National Ballet Company and “an American Film Institute, bringing together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators, and young men and women who wish to pursue the 20th century art form as their life’s work.”
Most of those Rose Garden promises never came true. But AFI, which was formally established 50 years ago in 1967, proved the exception. “It was a great experiment that blossomed into something that paid off in a culturally seismic way,” says Bob Gazzale, who has served as AFI’s president and CEO since 2007.
Operating on an annual $32 million budget — entirely dependent on private donations, a big chunk of which is raised by the annual Life Achievement Award gala — AFI has been active in film preservation (the AFI Collection in the Library of Congress numbers 60,000 reels), education (AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies lists are designed to provoke debate), and discovering new films and filmmakers (at its annual AFI Fest and AFI Docs film festivals). Its board of trustees is chaired by former Warner Bros. head Robert Daly and includes such power players as Disney’s Alan Horn, NBCUniversal’s Ron Meyer, Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Steven Spielberg and Shonda Rhimes.
But AFI’s cultural influence is most evident at its Conservatory, located in Hollywood, which offers a two-year graduate film program (with 5,112 attendees so far). Its first 18-member class included Terrence Malick, Caleb Deschanel and Paul Schrader (“Screenings three times a day, cocktail parties with Hitchcock, Ford and Capra — it was pretty great,” recalls the Taxi Driver writer). David Lynch arrived in 1970 — and would end up filming Eraserhead in the stables of Greystone Mansion, the Beverly Hills estate that originally housed the film school. “AFI helps you find your cinematic voice — its support, encouragement and inspiration,” he says. “Making movies is the only thing I know how to do.”
The conservatory’s alumni also include mother! director Darren Aronofsky, thirtysomething creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, Spielberg’s cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and Game of Thrones helmer Jeremy Podeswa — not to mention the class of 2000’s Patty Jenkins, who this summer rewrote the record books when Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman grossed $821 million worldwide. Says Jenkins of her Conservatory days, “AFI was the one and only pocket of time where I was able to steal all of my focus away from making a living and the realities of survival and focus solely on the kind of filmmaking I loved.”
Flash back to that original Rose Garden ceremony, where one of those present was George Stevens Jr. — son of Giant director George Stevens — who would become AFI’s founding director, serving from 1967 to 1980 and setting up its first home at the Greystone Mansion (the Conservatory’s campus moved to Hollywood in 1981). Stevens, now 85, recalled for THR how the idea for AFI first took root.
He had begun a career in Hollywood working as associate producer of his father’s The Diary of Anne Frank and as a TV director on Alfred Hitchcock presents, but had been lured to Washington, D.C., by broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, to oversee the United States Information Agency’s Motion Picture Service, which produced such films as 1965’s John F. Kennedy: Years of Lightning, Day of Drums. As plans for the National Endowment for the Arts began to take shape — Johnson had recruited an illustrious National Council on the Arts, which included luminaries like composer Leonard Bernstein, violist Isaac Stern and novelist Ralph Ellison, to advise the government on how it should support the arts — Stevens added his voice to the discussion.
How did the idea for an American Film Institute come about?
I had seen the first legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts. It listed the arts — theater, symphony, painting — with no mention of motion pictures. So I wrote to Senator Hubert Humphrey, whom I knew and who was one of the major sponsors, and made the case that motion pictures was an indigenous art form. So he added motion pictures. The National Arts Council, an extraordinary group, assigned some of its members that included my father, Gregory Peck, William Pereira the architect and [actress] Elizabeth Ashley to decide what to do about film, and they appointed a committee of which I was a member along with Jack Valenti [the former presidential aide who became first head of the MPAA], Arthur Schlesigner Jr. [the historian], Arnold Picker from United Artists. Film did not have the stature in this country that it has today. Nobody knew who directed movies except for Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B. DeMille. You’d go to Rizzoli Bookstore in New York, and there’d be one little shelf of film books. And so we started talking about a film institute.
What do you recall of the Rose Garden ceremony when Johnson established the NEA?
Peck was there. [The late MCA Universal founder] Lew Wasserman. I was sitting next to my father. But we had no idea [what was coming]. When Johnson started talking, he said, we’ll create a national opera, we’ll create a national theater, and he ended with, “and we’ll create an American Film Institute.” All of a sudden it took on a serious reality.
At the beginning of 1967, the Broadway producer Roger Stevens, no relation to you, who was the first head of the NEA, asked you to serve as AFI’s first director with Gregory Peck as AFI’s first chairman. Where did the initial funding come from?
We quickly came to the idea that it should be funded by both the government and the private sector. The NEA agreed to put up $1.3 million, which was going to have to be matched three times. So Roger and I went to the Ford Foundation and spoke to a fellow named F. McNeil Lowry, who was the arts person there, and Ford agreed to put up $1.3 million to support the training of filmmakers. Jack Valenti got the seven major film companies together to put up another $1.3 million. And we then had to raise the final $1.3 million for a budget of $5.2 million for the first three years. Roger also wrote a letter to Peck saying that if the AFI was successful in achieving its goals, approximately 10 percent of the Endowment’s funds would be available to support the AFI, which was a very powerful incentive and commitment in terms of future funding.
Eventually, though, the AFI came to depend entirely on private donations. In retrospect, do you think that protected the AFI from some of the political controversies that later hit the NEA?
We had to wean ourselves off before we finished the first three-year cycle, which made it much tougher than we anticipated. In 1968, everything changed. When Richard Nixon was elected president, that meant Roger Stevens would no longer head the NEA, and his successor, Nancy Hanks, wanted to hold the NEA’s film work closer. That 10 percent of the National Endowment never became a reality. But the AFI is now an organization not dependent on government funding.
What was AFI’s first order of business?
Film preservation. Very few people were paying attention to the problems of films being lost. When I was at the USIA, I was the American delegate to film festivals around the world. In 1962 at Cannes, Henri Langlois [head of the Cinematheque Francaise], with his mop of gray hair, had cornered me on the Croisette and gave me a scolding about what was happening with American films. He told me John Ford’s first feature, Straight Shooting, was lost, and nothing remained of Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman. So when we started AFI, it was at the forefront of our thinking. We enlisted a fellow named Sam Kula, a Canadian who worked at the British Film Institute, who became our archivist. We quickly realized with the budget we had, we couldn’t finance the problem. So I met with Quincy Mumford, the librarian of Congress, who was devoted to books, but he listened to our appeal that if we lost our film heritage, we’d lose a great cultural heritage. We agreed that if the AFI found the films and brought them to the library, the library would work to preserve them. We agreed to give $1 million to the library so they could hire additional staff. It became a wonderful collaboration. Today, there are 60,000 feature films at the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress. And alongside the archive program, we learned that unlike European countries, there was no catalog, no documentation of American films. And so we started the AFI Catalog. The first edition came out in two big red volumes. We persevered through the years. and today it is nearly complete. That was an equally important archival historical effort.
How did you go about setting up the AFI Conservatory?
I went and looked at the Czech film school, the Russian school, the Polish film academy. Not that we were going to imitate them, but they were doing interesting work. It was the time of Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, Jan Kadar and all those wonderful filmmakers. When I arrived in Czechoslovakia, the Russian tanks were in the street. It was a very tense time, to say the least. The head of the film school, who was a true Communist, had given cameras to the students to go out to film the Russian invasion. He was exiled from the party. One of the teachers, Frank Daniel, was assigned to show me around, and we got along very well. I asked him if he would come and help set up the center. He said he would, but he didn’t know if he could get out of the country with his children. Working with the State Department, we were able to get him out. I think his was one of the last families to get out.
Why did you choose Greystone Mansion as the first site for the film studies center?
I believed the center should belong in Los Angeles because we had the idea of a tutorial tradition where we would have the great filmmakers pass on their knowledge to the fellows, as we called the students. George Seaton, the director, producer and writer, was on the board at AFI, and his wife was the mayor of Beverly Hills. Greystone was on their hands, and after a series of negotiations, they provided it to us for $1 a year. [Director] Jean Renoir agreed to come up and do a series of seminars. Harold Lloyd came the first night and we showed Safety Last! and the 18 fellows met with him. And, actually, the first seminar was that afternoon, with Elia Kazan. So we immediately began calling on this tremendous resource of people with real knowledge. Fortuitously, we recorded those seminars.
What was the inspiration for the Life Achievement Award?
Well, when Nancy Hanks came in, we started struggling for money. She offered us a $500,000 matching grant as opposed to the 10 percent of the Endowment’s budget. I had this idea to do an event at the Kennedy Center where we would honor Cary Grant and show clips from his films. I called Cary, whom I knew slightly since he’d made three films with my father, and we had a wonderful conversation. So I told Bob Wood, [president] at CBS, who offered to broadcast it. But when I called Cary back to get a date, he said, “Television? George, I don’t do television.” So that idea was dead. But a couple of years later, we’d made a film called Directed by John Ford that Peter Bogdanovich directed. John Ford was a Republican, so I called Leonard Garment at the [Nixon] White House and said we’d like to honor John Ford at the Kennedy Center. “Do you think the president would like to be involved?” Well, nothing came of it, but six months later, Garment called back and said, “The president will come to your event for John Ford on March 29 in Los Angeles.” I said, “But Leonard, we were talking about the Kennedy Center.” And he said, “The president will be in Los Angeles.” So suddenly the idea became a reality, and we passed a resolution in February of ’73, and five weeks later, the event happened. It was a real turning point for AFI. It enabled us to raise money. The second year, we honored James Cagney. It was a fabulous night that Sinatra hosted, and I believe the telecast got a 56 share on CBS and absolutely put AFI on the map.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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