American Film Institute Celebrates 50 Years of History at the Greystone Mansion

From left: Tom West, Bob Mandel, Jean Picker Firstenberg, John Ptak and Brad Wyman

The historical landmark served as AFI's home for 16 years before they moved to their current Los Feliz facility and was both a campus and a studio for students like David Lynch and Paul Schrader.

On Saturday afternoon, film lovers gathered in the grand parlor of Los Angeles' historic Greystone Mansion to hear Jean Picker Firstenberg and other distinguished faculty discuss the storied history of one of the city's most important cultural institutions, the American Film Institute.

Firstenberg, who spent 27 years as the film school's president and CEO, told The Hollywood Reporter that AFI was founded at a time when the country showed a greater willingness to support art and culture.

AFI was created in the Rose Garden of the White House when President Lyndon Johnson signed the enabling legislation that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in order to preserve the history of American film and train its next generation of storytellers.

Greystone Mansion served as a home for AFI for 16 years before the institute moved to its current Los Feliz facility. The mansion was both a campus and a studio for budding directors like David Lynch, who would shoot his student films on the sprawling grounds, and Paul Schrader, who once lived in the estate’s horse stables.

Filmmaker Robert Mandel, who is both an alum and a former dean of the AFI Conservatory, spoke to THR about how the institute strived to change the way that film was perceived: "It was considered by many to be a trade. It was not considered to be an art form. When it got to AFI, it became art. They were talking about preserving an art form and teaching how to make art that would last for a very long time.”

The school has spent decades as a training ground for some of Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmakers, including Darren Aronofsky, Terrence Malick, Patty Jenkins and Scott Frank. Firstenberg tried to capture that epic history in her new book, Becoming AFI.

"The book is really the story of those 50 years and being one of the largest grantees of the National Endowment for the Arts and into becoming a self-sustaining institution," she said. "And for those of us who are interested in the arts and the evolution of cultural and educational institutions, it’s a quintessential look at that.”

Firstenberg also believes that a thriving artistic community is an essential part of our national identity. "I’m a big proponent that as a nation we should support our artists," she said. "They are our soul, our conscience and represent us in ways sometimes we don’t appreciate, but they really do stand for who we are.”

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