After a period of strenuous belt-tightening, the American Film Institute is now on an “even keel” financially and ready to begin a cautious period of expansion, according to its new board chairman, producer and former ABC president/CEO Frederick S. Pierce.

As reported (Daily Variety, Oct. 13), Pierce succeeds Gene F. Jankowski, who was chairman for the past four years. Pierce, who previously served on the AFI board in 1978-83, takes over the reins as of today’s board meeting in L.A.

Other incoming board members include Jeff Berg, president and chief exec officer of International Creative Management’s parent ICM Holdings; Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia Pictures; and Helen Stansbury, president of the AFI Associates.

Pierce and Jankowski, along with AFI director Jean Picker Firstenberg, have been meeting with the press over the past few days to discuss the state of the institution and to send out reassuring signals that the AFI is stabilizing in the wake of staff and operational cutbacks in 1990-91.

“Several years ago the AFI was in much worse shape than it is now,” Pierce said. “Based on the economy of the country and what everyone was going through, an incredible job was done in the last couple of years. The operation is a more finely tuned organization now.

“It gives us a great opportunity to move to the next level, to be able to start new programs without worrying about where the money is coming from.”

“In 1990-91 we restructured the institute,” Firstenberg said. “We eliminated 25 (staff) positions. We travel less. We don’t use Federal Express. We don’t even use messengers. We really run a very tight ship. We’re focused on our primary responsibilities — (film and TV) preservation, training and exhibition.”

“We go into 1993 in better financial shape than we have been in six years or even longer,” said Jankowski, a former CBS prexy now involved in media property and acquisition.

The AFI recently took advantage of lower interest rates to ease its debt burden from the purchase and renovation of its L.A. campus by refinancing its California Educational Facilities Authority bond issue through Sallie Mae (the Student Loan Marketing Assn.).

Expenses have been cut back in all areas of operations, including the production costs of the annual Life Achievement Award TV broadcast, which Firstenberg says brought in $ 1 million-plus in net profits for the first time this year.

The AFI currently draws less than 20% of its support from the National Endowment for the Arts (at its peak it drew about 24%), and Pierce said that regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, he expects NEA support will remain “as stable as it has been in the past.”

New revenue sources have been tapped, such as a $ 1 million grant of equipment from Apple Computer Inc. for the AFI-Apple Computer Center for Film and Videomakers.

Pierce–whose indie company has produced two HBO pix in the past two years and has theatrical projects in development at Universal, Columbia and Hollywood Pictures–now plans to spend two-thirds of his time in L.A.

One of his goals as AFI chairman will be to see the org “broaden its national base,” a longtime AFI goal that was made more difficult by the institute’s financial crunch. He feels that can be done through cooperation with other orgs in regions outside L.A. and D.C., where the AFI has always had a strong presence.

Pierce also wants the AFI to have a stronger role as a “think tank” to encourage discussion of issues affecting film and TV.

But he added, “In a time of belt-tightening, you’ve got to be careful you don’t spread yourself too thin too quickly. The hallmark of this organization has always been its quality.

“The challenge as we go into the future is to accelerate the revenue stream without affecting the quality of these programs. You don’t want to sacrifice that.”

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