AFI aired the latest in its “100 Years” series on CBS in June, this one entitled “100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies.” For Jean Picker Firstenberg, the outgoing CEO and prexy of the American Film Institute, her most inspiring moment came early in her 27-year tenure at the org’s top.
“When I came to AFI, the job was in Washington, D.C.,” she recalls. “I was an East Coast kid, and I never thought of living in California.”
But after only nine months as the org’s director and CEO, she acquired the land for an eight-acre campus in L.A. in 1980, for what would be the AFI Conservatory.
“I walked down the hill with (AFI chairman) Charlton Heston and Steve Brody, who was a philanthropist and exhibitor, and that was the beginning. If you’re going to be the American Film Institute, then you ought to be in the filmmaking capital of the world. It was an early statement that allowed all the other events of note to happen.”
Other achievements on her watch:
- relaunched the AFI Catalog, in 1983;
- established the AFI Los Angeles Intl. Film Festival, in 1987;
- preemed “AFI’s 100 Years” series on CBS, in 1998;
- led the establishment of AFI’s K-12 Screen Education Center, in 1999;
- opened the AFI Silver Theater and Culture Center in Silver Spring, Md., in 2003;
- once the largest recipient of federal funding from the NEA, AFI is now self-sufficient, deriving its operating budget from individual and institutional philanthropy and revenue-generating programs.
What’s next for Firstenberg?
“I hope to catch up on all the movies I wasn’t able to see in the last 20 years,” she says. “I want to go into the ArcLight Cinema in the daytime. I always thought going into a matinee was like playing hookey.”
What: AFI 40th anniversary
Where: Arclight Cinema, Hollywood
When: 7 tonight p.m. Oct. 3
Who: Julia Andrews, Warren Beatty, Billy Crystal, Kirk Douglas, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Tippi Hedren, Angela Lansbury, George Lucas, Jack Nicholson
Night to remember
It should be quite a movie orgy.
Tonight at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas, AFI unspools 10 vintage movies, each of which will be introduced by its respective star or filmmaker. Those lucky enough to have secured a ticket for the sold-out event will get to hear all about the making of such classics as “Spartacus,” “The Birds,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Unforgiven,” etc.
For Bob Gazzale, who also heads up the “AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards” and the “AFI 100 Years” TV specials, the Target-sponsored event at ArcLight has been pretty felicitous to put together. His AFI team picked the films and no celeb balked at the choice.
Unfortunately, no movie aficionado can be in all 10 ArcLight theaters at once when each celeb begins his or her intro at 7 p.m. sharp.
True fans, however, can take heart. “All the speeches will be videotaped, but not broadcast, for our archives,” says Gazzale.
According to AFI, “Psycho” is the No. 1 thriller, “Casablanca” is the No. 1 romance, and “Some Like It Hot” is the No. 1 comedy. Obviously, AFI likes numbers. But no way can you get either its outgoing prexy or incoming topper — the switch takes place Nov. 1 — to choose a personal No. 1 film in any category. It’s not for fear of offending any moviemaker friends.
“There are just too many films to choose from the hundreds of thousands I’ve seen,” says AFI’s director Bob Gazzale, who takes over as CEO and prexy.
Current topper Jean Picker Firstenberg agrees. “I guess it’s the whole environment of growing up in those movies palaces,” she says, referring to the Loews’ houses operated by her father, Eugene Picker. “It was a world that took you to another world.”
Regarding early movie impressions, Gazzale does mention “The Wizard of Oz” as well as two other classics that, when they pop up on the tube, he can’t switch the channel:
“There’s no chance I’ll turn off ‘The Godfather.’ There’s that opening image of the man’s face and the words, ‘I believe in America,’ and I’m hooked for the next three hours. Words would fail me why these movies find a way into our soul. With ‘Vertigo’ I get completely lost in that movie. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s like being caught in a labyrinth. You’re so grateful when the ‘The End’ appears. You’ve been on this bizarre, timeless journey. I feel like yelling ‘help’ halfway through ‘Veritigo.’ “