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AFI’s departing chief looks back

Firstenberg recalls her tenure as CEO

After nearly three decades serving as CEO of the American Film Institute, Jean Picker Firstenberg is stepping down from her post this year, once AFI’s 40th anniversary celebration is over and a successor has been named. Firstenberg has led AFI since Jan. 1, 1980, through growth, transitions and major milestones. She recently spoke with Variety about her tenure.

First impressions

“It was kind of a thrilling beginning because in 1980 we acquired the AFI campus. The lease of Greystone (the mansion in Beverly Hills that served as AFI’s L.A. home for a decade) had expired, and the institute had grown so dramatically over 10 years that we needed a larger base out here. So it was a very dramatic initial year.

“It was also a traumatic year because everyone loved Greystone, and all the fellows who went there said, ‘Oh my God, we’re leaving this great place. What will the new place be like?’ We moved here (to the Hollywood campus) in 1981, and it’s proven to be a wonderful environment. It’s a little bit like an oasis, symbolically. It’s a watering hole that nurtures you, and then it prepares you to go out into the rest of the world.”

Giant steps

“The accreditation of the AFI Conservatory by both the National Assn. of Schools of Art and Design and the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges — while maintaining its singular commitment to hands-on learning and mentoring by the masters — I think, has been a major development. When you’ve made that commitment of time and investment, getting a degree makes it particularly meaningful.

“Another milestone was the transition in the late 1990s from a grant-dependent entity to an entrepreneurial position. That occurred when NEA arts funding disappeared after 28 years.

“Also, the launch 10 years ago of AFI’s ‘100 Years … 100 Movies’ celebration was also a milestone. It came from the board’s recognition that the institute’s national presence was a priority and the way to do that was in effect a celebration of the centennial that could be presented to America as a recognition of what films have contributed to our culture, our nation and our world.”

Biggest challenge

“You cannot stay the same as the world changes around you. An arts organization or a cultural entity needs to grow and evolve and be responsive to the artists it represents, to the audience who are responsive to those artists, and to the changing cultural atmosphere that enables those artists to find their audience. That changes from 1912 to 2012. The challenge is to be at the intersection of that change, where the institute plays the role of the guardian of the past and the leader of the future.”

Morphing AFI Awards

“For our first event, in 2001, we were offered an opportunity by our good friend Leslie Moonves at CBS to put the event on TV. As I look back now, , the timing of the telecast was too soon, and after the first year wasn’t successful in that format, we thought: ‘What does make sense?’

“Since then we have done it in a way that I’m very proud of and that I think is really a model for the 21st century. We have a luncheon just for the creative communities who are in front of and behind the camera. It assembles those artists who have created the works (being honored). They salute each other. Everyone who comes is a winner. There are no losers.”

Life Achievement highlights

“It’s really been fun to take it to the Kodak Theater. Our first year there was honoring Tom Hanks, and we re-created this 3,400-seat theater into an intimate ballroom. We also had AFI members and alumni in the mezzanine, and the energy of bringing men and women who are part of the world of the moving image into that environment — which we couldn’t have done in a ballroom of a hotel — changed the whole atmosphere.”

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