An AFI lifer takes the reins


Opting to promote from within, the American Film Institute has named 15-year AFI executive Bob Gazzale president and CEO. He will assume the post Nov. 1, replacing Jean Picker Firstenberg, who has led the AFI since 1980.

Gazzale, a film historian and Emmy-nominated television producer, was the unanimous choice of the AFI's board of trustees, board chairman Howard Stringer said Tuesday in making the announcement. The board also named Firstenberg president emeritus and a lifetime trustee.

Gazzale becomes only the third head of the AFI, created by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1967. George Stevens Jr. served as its first president until 1980.

Firstenberg announced her resignation in June, saying she would step down in the fall after the AFI had celebrated its 40th anniversary, an event that was marked June 8 at the AFI's Life Achievement Award dinner honoring Al Pacino.

"After considering a diverse and impressive group of candidates, AFI's board agreed that Bob Gazzale's passion for American film and the character and quality with which he upholds the standards of AFI will lead us proudly into the 21st century," Stringer said. "Or as we say in the movies, we searched for brain, heart and courage and found it all in our own backyard."

Bob Daly, the former Warner Bros. co-chairman who served on the search committee, said Firstenberg invited board members to make recommendations, "and a lot of board members recommended him right from the beginning. Within the AFI, he's very well known, and having handled the Life Achievement Awards and a lot of the (TV) specials, he's well liked within the creative community and knows how to deal with artists and producers. More importantly, he has tremendous integrity," Daly added.

The search committee also considered external candidates, but the choice kept coming back to Gazzale, and Friday, the committee met with the candidate at Daly's home and after a full presentation recommended his appointment. The board of directors approved the decision Monday, and the full board of trustees concurred Tuesday.

The search committee included AFI board chairs and vice chairs such as Stringer, Jon Avnet, John F. Cooke, Mark Canton, Daly, Rich Frank, Tom Pollock and John DiBiaggio. Neil Fink of Gunderson & Associates served as search consultant.

Gazzale will have oversight and responsibility for all aspects of the film education and cultural organization, including AFI's Conservatory, TV productions, online and digital programs (which comprise the AFI Digital Content Lab and K-12 Screen Education Center), AFI's film festivals and exhibition programs as well as the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md.

Gazzale described himself as a longtime AFI enthusiast. "It's interesting that in a discussion of the future of the AFI, I started with my past," he said of the interview process, relating that when he was 9-years-old, he watched the AFI's televised Life Achievement dinner honoring Jimmy Cagney.

"I turned off the TV that night, and I knew movies were important and moviemakers were important," he said. Soon thereafter, he became a subscriber to American Film, a magazine that the AFI published, and would drive two hours from his home in Virginia to see AFI movie programs at the Kennedy Center. "I even met my wife in the halls of the AFI," he said. "The AFI has always been more than a job for me."

The new president joined AFI in 1992 and for the past eight years has served as director of AFI Prods. He has produced and written the past seven AFI Life Achievement Awards. He also helped conceive "AFI's 100 Years ...," the annual three-hour television event that airs on CBS and honors the centennial of American film.

In his new role, Gazzale will no longer be producing the dinners and specials. But before he makes any decisions about the AFI's direction, he said he "will meet with every single member of the board of trustees, because they are an important force for moving the institute forward, and we'll be moving forward together."

A California native, Gazzale graduated from the University of Virginia with a major in English in 1987. The following year, he launched the Virginia Festival of American Film, where he produced more than 200 events with a focus on bringing together the worlds of academia and entertainment.

It was at the Virginia fest that Firstenberg met Gazzale and invited him to join the AFI. After two years in Los Angeles, Gazzale ran AFI's National Programs out of New York for five years before returning to Los Angeles.

Firstenberg's 27-year tenure covers the acquisition of AFI's Los Angeles campus, the accreditation of the AFI Conservatory and the institute's entrepreneurial evolution, including the creation of the "100 Years" series.