Jean Picker Firstenberg is stepping down as CEO of the American Film Institute next year following the celebration of the org’s 40th anniversary and a search for her successor.
AFI board of trustees chairman and Sony chairman Howard Stringer made the surprise announcement Thursday.
Word came just hours before an AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Sean Connery at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
“It’s time to hand this wonderful place to the next generation. The timing? It just feels right,” Firstenberg told Daily Variety.
Asked about the org’s future role and direction, Firstenberg said that she hoped the AFI would, among other things, “continue to be at the crossroads of Silicon Valley and the creative community.”
After a career as a leading national advocate of the arts and American film, Firstenberg referred to herself as “a digital grandmother.” “We need to keep pace with the new media and all the changes in the cultural landscape,” she declared.
Only the second person to head AFI since its creation 40 years ago, Firstenberg has led the arts org since Jan. 1, 1980, making her one of the longest-serving chief execs of any nonprofit.
She informed the entire AFI board of trustees of her decision at its June meeting early Thursday and agreed to its request that she remain in her post until a new topper is found. The 35-member board gave her a standing ovation.
A few of the board members may have been surprised, said board member Bob Daly, who, as an old friend, had talked with Firstenberg for a year about how her eventual exit would be accomplished.
The process of choosing a successor begins immediately and may involve a headhunter, Daly added. It could last a year to 18 months.
Just 12 hours before the announcement, Firstenberg attended a trustees cocktail party and was busily gladhanding and talking up initiatives for the 40th anni celebration.
Stringer was to make a formal announcement about Firstenberg’s decision to the creative community Thursday evening at the Connery tribute dinner.
“AFI’s past 26 years have been marked by remarkable growth, innovation and reinvention, and the driving force behind it all has been the leadership of Jean Picker Firstenberg,” Stringer said.
“Jean has championed the young filmmakers who learn their craft at the AFI Conservatory; she has fought to rescue, restore and catalog America’s film history; and she has brought the magic of the movies to generations through both AFI’s national exhibition and television programs,” Stringer added.
Daly said that Firstenberg would be “very hard” to replace, especially as she combined “passion for the business” with “an unbelievable ability to get along with everyone and get things done.”
Firstenberg was named CEO in 1980 by the AFI board and then-chair Charlton Heston. Since that time, she has worked closely with the board — comprised of studio heads, network prexies, academics and top corporate execs — to position AFI as one of the most respected arts orgs in the nation.
“It seems fitting to hand the baton to my successor after (the 40th celebration), so that person can start the next chapter in AFI’s history. I then plan to travel, write, consult and continue to be an advocate for the art and artists of film and television,” Firstenberg said.
During her tenure, AFI expanded beyond its founding missions — to train America’s next generation of moviemakers and preserve the nation’s film heritage — to become the largest nonprofit film exhibitor in the U.S., to celebrate excellence in American film and television and to integrate new media into the biz.
Also under Firstenberg’s aegis, the org acquired its eight-acre Los Angeles campus, opened the AFI Silver Theater and Culture Center outside Washington, D.C., and established the AFI Los Angeles Film Festival, which will celebrate its 20th anni this fall. The AFI Conservatory also expanded to a two-year graduate degree program, now fully accredited.
Perhaps her most challenging accomplishment, though, has been to steer AFI through changes in its funding base.
Under her direction, the org transformed itself from a traditional nonprofit that was once the largest recipient of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts into a self-sufficient entity that derives its operating budget from a blend of individual and institutional philanthropy, along with revenue-generating programs that honor achievement in American film.
Key to that transition was the 1998 launch of “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies,” a three-hour primetime CBS special. Successive editions have saluted stars, music, comedy and other aspects of film, with the ninth annual installment, “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies,” to air on the net on Wednesday.
Firstenberg also oversaw the establishment of the annual “AFI Awards” — an almanac of excellence in film and TV in the current century.
In a joint statement, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who studied together at the AFI Conservatory, said: “In the years since we met Jean in 1980, she has weathered the storms of funding, inspired the cynical and taken our anarchic, loveable AFI Conservatory and turned it into a world-class teaching facility.”
AFI trustee and board of directors chair Jon Avnet added, “If the measurement of one’s achievement is the impact they have on the individuals and the communities they touch, then Jean sets a very high bar indeed.”
Read more on Firstenberg’s exit at ArmyArcherd.com