AFI Conservatory: Still the Program of Choice

AFI campus

MovieMaker (MM): The American Film Institute Conservatory is now in its 32nd year.
The Institute is not only a leader in film education, but in exhibition
and preservation, making it a true cultural treasure. Before we
get into a discussion about the Conservatory, can you give MM readers
an overview of how AFI was founded, and how it became what it is
today.

Sam Grogg, Dean of AFI Conservatory (SG): The American Film Institute was founded in 1967 as an independent
non-profit dedicated to advancing the art of the moving image,
preserving film classics of the past, advocating an appreciation
of film and television in the present and helping train the filmmakers
of the future.

The Institute’s first Chairman was Gregory Peck,
and George Stevens, Jr. was the Founding Director. Initial funding
for AFI came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford
Foundation and the member companies of the Motion Picture Association
of America. In 1969, AFI established its Conservatory, the Center
for Advanced Film and Television Studies at Greystone and the
Doheny Mansion in Beverly Hills. Among the first class of young
filmmakers were Jeremy Paul Kagan (The Chosen, The Adventures
Of Natty Gann
); Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural); Matthew Robbins (Sugarland
Express
, MacArthur) and Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Affliction).

John Cassavetes became the first Filmmaker-in-Residence
at the Center in 1972. In 1973 AFI began what has become, perhaps,
its best known activity with the presentation of the first Life
Achievement Award to John Ford. The Life Achievement Award has
become one of the highest honors a filmmaker can receive, and
the annual ceremony is telecast worldwide. Since 1980, Jean Picker
Firstenberg has served as Director and CEO of AFI.

In 1981, AFI acquired the former campus of Immaculate
Heart College on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Occupying four
buildings spread over eight acres, the campus provides a spacious
home for the Institute. Among the Conservatory’s graduates are
noted filmmakers such as David Lynch, John McTiernan, Marshall
Herskovitz, Ed Zwick, Carl Franklin, Mimi Leder, Bill Duke, Amy
Heckerling, Darren Aronofsky, Janusz Kaminski and many others.

AFI has continued to encourage new filmmakers with
programs that have steadily extended into new areas. First television,
and now the new media arts are firmly within AFI’s purview. One
of the most notable programs run under AFI auspices is the Directing
Workshop for Women which, beginning in 1974, has given over 150
professional women the chance to direct motion pictures. AFI operates
the Television Writer’s Workshop as well as several state-of-the-art
advanced technology labs at the Los Angeles campus. AFI continually
works to showcase new works by emerging filmmakers, most visibly
through the annual AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival
(“AFI Fest”). AFI’s centennial celebration of American films and
filmmakers began with 1998’s “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies” and
continued with “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars,” “AFI’s 100 Years…100
Laughs,” “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills” and “AFI’s 100 Years…100
Passions.” These specials sparked lively debate and inspired more
than 11 million viewers to rediscover America’s film classics.

Sam Grogg

MM: To say AFI is a venerable institution
doesn’t begin to do it justice. Yet the Conservatory is still “academia.”
On a personal note, how does one leave a career as a successful
producer to take a post like that of college dean?

SG: Working on producing a film actually
involves many of the same skills and talents as those required
of the head of a filmmaker training program. I believe that my
professional experience is crucial to understanding the goals
and values of young filmmakers.

MM: Who is an ideal potential Fellow
at AFI Conservatory?

SG: I think the person who gets the most
out of our program is someone who has had prior experience in
the profession, a strong sense of story and well-grounded in the
liberal arts. Love of movies is a given, but a certain maturity
of experience and an appreciation of literature, art, history,
politics and culture is an equal must.

MM: AFI is extremely active in maintaining
close ties to grads and bringing them back to campus to meet and
instruct current Fellows. Last year many of the 3,000 alumni attended
a reunion, and your “Breakfast with Alumni” programs give students
ample opportunity to rub elbows with successful working moviemakers.
What is the Institute’s philosophy as to how alumni fit in?

SG: Our alumni are the real proof that the
program was and is essential to the growth of the creative leadership
of the moving image arts professions. We involve alumni in all
aspects of the program—as guest artists, on the faculty as a network
for the future graduates and as mentors. Our alumni serve as role
models for the current Fellows and as examples of what is possible.
They are a voice in our collective Conservatory ear reminding
us that the program is about real people who make real contributions
to the future of the profession.

MM: Your “How Great Filmmakers Inspire
Great Filmmakers” series is intriguing, as “education through
inspiration” is an area we focus on in MM. Also,
your Harold Lloyd Master Seminar series, where guests impart practical
advice and passion to current Fellows, sounds fascinating.

SG: A core theme for the
Conservatory is masters sharing with apprentices. Every
year 30 to 40 leading filmmakers screen their work and engage
in discussions with AFI Fellows. David Lynch, Amy Heckerling,
Robert Altman, Baz Luhrmann, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball and many others
have given their time to the Fellows.

MM: AFI seems to be keeping up with new
technology with its New Media Ventures, including hosting the
California Digital Arts Workshop last year. How are you helping
to guide the program into the 21st century, and how do you see
the program continuing to evolve?

SG: The faculty is committed to ensuring
that cutting edge technology is part of the Conservatory learning
experience. AFI pioneered the use of digital video as a teaching
medium and now has incorporated the new 24p High Definition medium
as one of the tools used by Fellows. Our post production area
has the most contemporary digital editing technology available.
But regardless of the technological developments, a strong story
sense is of top priority in the Conservatory curriculum.

MM: It’s exciting that AFI has begun a
new distance learning program for students who don’t live in Southern
California.

SG: This program is in development and is
directed at individuals who want to learn more about the filmmaking
process. The Conservatory’s graduate program still requires residence
on campus. We want to develop our distance learning capability
further over the next few years.

MM: AFI archives contain more than 1,500
short films. Why did the Institute recently team with Hypnotic
to distribute many of them?

SG: The thesis productions of AFI Fellows
are expected to demonstrate professional level accomplishment.
Like all professional motion pictures, they are meant to be seen
by as wide an audience as possible. The current agreement with
Hypnotic films allows for such distribution. AFI’s agreement with
the Screen Actors Guild also requires that it distribute the films
as widely as possible in order to potentially repay the performers
for their volunteer services on the productions.

MM: What would you say to a prospective
AFI Fellow deciding on a film career?

SG: The filmmaking profession is incredibly
charismatic to all who fancy they can write scripts or take pictures.
But it is a very demanding profession that only few individuals
manage to build a career around. The advice I’d give is to find
a way to get some real experience with the production process. See
how it works in its most unglamorous reality. Read all you can—find
stories, tell stories. Then look for a way to nurture your own voice—graduate
school, making a short, AFI Conservatory are all options. We’ve
had Fellows enter the program at 22 and at 60. Their success was
entirely dependent on their ability to articulate a story through
work that made an emotional and true connection with an audience. MM

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