Posted by Larry Gleeson
It was 50 years ago that the American Film Institute began its mission — to preserve the heritage of the motion picture, to honor the artists and their work and to educate the next generation of storytellers. Established by Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential mandate in the White House Rose Garden, AFI commemorates its golden milestone on June 5, 2017 — 50 years from the date of its official founding — at the AFI Conservatory Commencement on the grounds of the historic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
AFI will continue to celebrate through 2019, which will mark the 50th Anniversary of the Conservatory’s 1969 inaugural class. Throughout this timeframe, AFI will announce activities and programs that promise to educate today’s audiences and tomorrow’s artists.
AFI’s founding statement of purpose was to “elevate cinema to its fullest potential — to preserve, stimulate, enrich and nurture the art of film in America.” Here are some of AFI’s milestones:
Preserving America’s Precious Film Heritage
When film was in its infancy, movies were shot on volatile nitrate stock that disintegrated in short time. There are estimates that more than 50 percent of the films shot before 1950 are lost forever.
One of AFI’s first acts was to rally the studios to donate copies of their highest quality prints, and now 60,000 films are secure in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress.
In 1968, AFI launched a project of epic ambition — the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, which published its first volume of research in 1971. Never before had there been a singular scholarly resource for every American film. The Catalog is a historic record, and in 2017 AFI is proud to announce that the first 100 years of American film will have been documented.
“No other source of information is as complete and accurate,” said director Martin Scorsese. “And no other source is produced with the scrupulous level of attention to scholarship and research as the AFI Catalog.”
Educating the Next Generation of Storytellers
Inspired by words first spoken by President Johnson in the White House Rose Garden — “We will bring together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators and young men and women who wish to pursue the art form as their life’s work” — AFI opened the Center for Advanced Film Studies (now the AFI Conservatory) in 1969.
An elite and intimate MFA program that accepts only 140 Fellows a year, AFI boasts alumni that include Andrea Arnold, Darren Aronofsky, Julie Dash, Caleb Deschanel, Patty Jenkins, Janusz Kamiński, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Robert Richardson, Paul Schrader and many more film and television luminaries. The immersive training program focuses on learning by doing in an intensive production-based curriculum. AFI alumni have won every major award and boast an employment rate of 81%.
Addressing Gender Diversity in the Industry
In 1974, AFI recognized a dire imbalance in gender representation among the voices telling America’s tales, and so it launched the AFI Directing Workshop for Women (DWW). AFI’s leadership role continues to this day with this celebrated, tuition-free training program committed to increasing the number of women working professionally in screen directing.
Elevating Film Masters to Be Appreciated as Artists
In 1973, the Institute established the AFI Life Achievement Award to ensure that “great accomplishments of the past are recognized to the end that the masters of film may take their deserved place in history beside leaders in other arts.”
The AFI Life Achievement has been broadcast around the world for 45 years. All honorees are listed here.
In 2000, AFI created AFI AWARDS to honor the extraordinary screen stories of the year in a noncompetitive environment. AFI’s unique format recognizes the collaborative nature of the art form by celebrating the creative ensembles in a private ceremony — with rationales that contextualize their contributions to America’s cultural heritage.
Catalyzing a Global Dialogue About American Film
In 1998, AFI sparked a worldwide conversation that continues to this day by launching AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies — a countdown of the 100 greatest movies of all time revealed in a three-hour CBS television event.
With this first authoritative list of its kind, AFI’s goal was to shift the conversation from box office or now-popular numerical scores for films toward public discussion about what makes a great movie and why.
These AFI specials spanned 11 years — and nearly 80 hours of television programming — and are still used as a reference today for film lovers and historians alike.
Providing Access to Film’s Finest
When AFI was founded, access to films was limited to theatrical venues. One of AFI’s earliest goals was to establish an exhibition presence at L’Enfant Plaza in 1970 before taking up official residence in the Kennedy Center, unveiling premiere restorations, classic film prints and more. Today, that work continues at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in the Washington, DC, area.
Under an alliance with FILMEX, the Institute in 1987 launched the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, which became AFI FEST presented by Audi — a weeklong extravaganza for master filmmakers and emerging artists to engage with audiences in the heart of the movie capital of the world. AFI FEST remains the first and only festival of its stature that is free to the public.
Convening America’s Storytellers and the Nation’s Leaders
Since 2003, AFI DOCS has celebrated the best in nonfiction filmmaking. Today, AFI hosts the event in Washington, DC, with the goal to bring together storytellers who wish to change the world with men and women who have the power to do so. Attendees and participants include members of the Supreme Court, Congress and the President’s Cabinet, as well as ambassadors from nations around the world, journalists and enthusiastic lovers of the art form.