Producer replaces Firstenberg in fall

Bob Gazzale has been named the new prexy-chief exec of the American Film Institute.

Appointment was made Tuesday by chairman Howard Stringer and the org’s board of trustees. Gazzale takes office on Nov. 1 and replaces Jean Picker Firstenberg, who will step down this fall following AFI’s 40th anniversary celebration.

Gazzale is the third person to lead AFI since it was founded by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. He has been a senior exec at AFI for 15 years and is a three-time Emmy-nominated producer for various AFI television specials.

“The votes of the AFI board of trustees is an immeasurable honor,” Gazzale said. “My commitment is to make them proud and, in doing so, to lead this great institution into the future with continued reverence and respect due our nation’s storytellers. With the dynamic changes in the world of the moving image, now more than ever we need an American Film Institute to train the next generation and honor the very best the art form has to honor.”

Stringer said: “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. Or, as we say in the movies, we searched for brain, heart and courage and found it all in our own backyard.”

Among Gazzale’s responsibilities will be overseeing the org’s conservatory, television productions, online and digital programs, film festivals and exhibition programs. A graduate of the U. of Virginia, Gazzale, 42, has produced and written the past seven AFI Life Achievement Award telecasts and helped conceive the AFI “100 Years” series that airs on CBS.

“AFI has always been more than a job to me,” Gazzale told Daily Variety. “I started working here in 1992 but was introduced to it in 1974 while watching Jimmy Cagney get the Life Achievement Award. I came away from that show realizing movies are important and that the people who make those movies are important.”

Firstenberg leaves AFI after 27 years. Highlights of her tenure include the acquisition of a Los Angeles campus and the “100 Year” series. She replaced the org’s first topper, George Stevens Jr., in 1980.

“Bob Gazzale is a young man with a great knowledge and respect for film and television history,” Firstenberg said. “He also has the vision and the passion to take AFI to the next level.”

The search committee that selected Gazzale was composed of Stringer, Jon Avnet, John F. Cooke, Mark Canton, Bob Daly, Rich Frank, Tom Pollock and John DiBiaggio. Daly chaired the search committee, which was created immediately after Firstenberg announced her retirement a year ago.

Early on in the search process there were some 20 people under consideration, but some didn’t work out because of other job commitments.

“When we started the search, we set up a committee and a lot of the board members recommended him,” Daly told Daily Variety. “I realized he was a special individual and spent an hour and a half with him at breakfast. I told him he had one thing going against him: ‘You work for AFI.’

“Inside candidates often have a tough time. Many people assumed he did a great job at just writing and producing the shows. When I realized his background and his passion for the AFI, and what his relationship was with Jean, we looked at other candidates but knew we had a gem right here.”

Daly also said Gazzale’s young age made him a logical choice to address the technological and online issues AFI will have to face in the years ahead.

“When you have a guy who’s 42 years old with 20 years of experience, with small children, you’re on top of all that stuff,” Daly said. “That doesn’t come when you’re 60 years old.”

“In one day I’ve watched ‘Casablanca’ in a theater, watched TV at home and then played PlayStation,” Gazzale recalled, in describing his involvement with different entertainment media. “I’m a multi-user of the moving image. That’s what AFI is here for. I’ve learned what the power of the moving image is to our lives.”

Gazzale said his first task would be to sit down with each member of the board of trustees and discuss their visions for the org’s future.

Last week CBS aired AFI’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time,” in which “Citizen Kane” was tabbed No. 1, the same place it held when the group voted in 1996.

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