American Film Institute - AFI

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones AFI
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones at the AFI

The American Film Institute or AFI is dedicated to promoting the art of filmmaking through education and efforts to honor and preserve film. Members include actors, screenwriters, directors, and others involved in the film industry.

Institute History

The National Endowment for the Arts funded the American Film Institute in 1967 under founding director George Stevens, Jr.. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation that brought the organization to life in 1965, and said, "We will create 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."

Early Firsts

Right from the start, the American Film Institute engaged some of the best and brightest in the industry. For example:

  • The original 22-member board of the AFI included film luminaries like Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Jack Valenti.
  • The first graduating class of the Center for Advanced Film Studies included David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Eraserhead), Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver), and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Days of Heaven).
  • The AFI began holding ceremonies for their Life Achievement Award in 1973. Recipients include Al Pacino, Bette Davis, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, and John Ford.

Entering the Modern Era

In the 1980s, the AFI center for film studies flourished into the accredited master's program known as the AFI Conservatory. It has since expanded to open the Silver Theater in Maryland serving the greater DC area film community, embraced digital media as a film art form, and started the AFI Silverdocs documentary festival, in conjunction with the Discovery Channel.

The AFI Conservatory

The Conservatory at the American Film Institute is hailed as one of the most advanced training centers for filmmakers in the US, offering two-year programs that result in a Master of Fine Arts degree. Since being founded in 1969, the AFI conservatory has graduated more than four thousand directors, producers, editors, production designers, and cinematographers. Included in the ranks of AFI alumni are directors like Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and Amy Heckerling (Clueless, Fast Times...), and cinematographers like Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight trilogy) and Janusz Kaminski (Schindler's List, Lincoln), among many others.

The conservatory offers studies in six different subjects, including:

  • Screenwriting
  • Cinematography
  • Directing
  • Editing
  • Producing
  • Production Design

The AFI conservatory offers mentorship with active professionals in television and cinema, and graduates finish the program with an MFA in their chosen specialty. They accept only 140 new students every year. Alumni's achievements are noted and celebrated on a regular basis, and it is fascinating to visit the website around awards season to see how many Oscar-nominated films include AFI grads in their credits.

American Film Institute Awards

Each year the American Film Institute presents the AFI Awards to "honor excellence in the moving image arts" by noting ten movies and ten television programs in its November awards ceremony. The AFI acknowledging ten movies per year helped pave the way for the Oscars to acknowledge ten movies per year, up from five, a change the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made in 2009.

Film Nominees

The wider scope of choosing 10 nominees a year allows the AFI to acknowledge films that may not always reach critic's best-of lists. Typical best movies of the year are acknowledged, including Oscar contenders such as 2010's Black Swan and 2012's Les Miserables. However, the AFI nominees typically include less obvious choices, like The Descendants and Bridesmaids in 2011. Nominees include all film genres, from comedy to drama.

TV Nominees

The AFI awards for television focus on "watercooler" shows, acknowledging consistently discussed dramas and sitcoms on major networks, as well as popular cable shows that capture wide audiences. Recent nominees have included:

  • Mad Men
  • Modern Family
  • The Walking Dead
  • Girls

Unlike regular television awards, these awards focus on the best television of the year, so singular events like The Pacific HBO miniseries can also be acknowledged in the same breath as Breaking Bad, instead of being relegated to a "miniseries" contest.

Film Preservation

The American Film Institute takes great steps toward preserving cinematic history by purchasing, restoring, and protecting copies of rare films and television shows. Funded solely by grants and donations, AFI preservation ensures that important pieces of film from long ago will remain available for years to come.

During the 1980s, the fragility of old film stock became of immediate concern as old films began to fall apart in storage. Efforts were undertaken, spearheaded by film historians and luminaries like Martin Scorcese to make sure that films were not lost entirely. The digital revolution of the 21st century saw potential profits in restoring movies for DVD releases, so many films that might have been ignored have now been rescued.

The AFI Collection

The AFI film collection contains almost 30,000 titles, including features, shorts, and documentaries dating as far back as 1894. The collection includes titles that may seem obscure, but which carry some historical significance in the world of cinema and television. For example, the collection includes the 1908 version of The Count of Monte Cristo, the earliest filmed version of that novel, and a short film called A Fool and His Money, which remains almost completely unknown but which was directed by Alice Guy, the first female director, and features what is probably the first all African-American cast.

The AFI also maintains the AFI Catalog which offers much more thorough and curated information, including bibliographies and notes by filmmakers on the productions and impact of more than 60,000 motion picture titles.

Preserving Culture Through Film

The AFI plays an important role in preserving and promoting film as an art form in American Culture. Because of its efforts, the film industry has a recorded and systematic catalog of films. Promoting the finest in film making through its awards, the AFI has defined iconic movies throughout the last century.

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