A world of films needs a forum

It was launched in the Rose Garden by President Lyndon B. Johnson to advance and preserve the art of the moving image. For decades, the American Film Institute thrived doing just that. Now, like almost every other nonprofit organization knocked sideways by the recession, AFI finds itself having to script its own comeback story.

Much of AFI's campus near Griffith Park has neither air conditioning nor heating. AFI's last televised Top 100 show lost more than $1 million, and the cable ratings for its Life Achievement Award are plunging. An ambitious, encyclopedic AFI directory of American movies still has four decades of films to catalog, and government support for the project has dried up.

If any organization needs to unwind in a movie theater for an hour or two, it's AFI -- and from Friday through Nov. 7, the institute can do just that with its annual AFI Fest, primarily playing at Grauman's Chinese Theater and Mann Chinese 6 theaters in Hollywood.

Unlike many other leading film festivals, AFI Fest, now in its 23rd year, is not interested in an onslaught of glitzy, star-filled premieres. Film distributors and sales agents do not converge on the festival to strike rich deals as they do at Sundance, Toronto and Cannes. And while AFI Fest (which is co-sponsored by The Times) has a handful of gala screenings -- Tom Ford's "A Single Man," Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- most of the festival's tickets were given away for free this year, with almost all screenings filling up just a few hours after tickets became available online.

"It was inspired by the times," says Bob Gazzale, AFI's president and chief executive officer. "If you can't look to the American Film Institute to open the doors to a movie theater, I'm not sure who you can look to." Gazzale says much of the lost revenue from ticket sales will be covered by underwriting from sponsor Audi. That said, the festival has reduced the number of features it is showing from 98 a year ago to 67 this year, and AFI Fest movies will be shown only once instead of enjoying multiple screenings.

"We wanted to figure out how we could get people excited about a celebration of film," says Rose Kuo, AFI Fest's artistic director. "The AFI has a mission to celebrate film artists. This is completely in line with that."

The festival is filled with some of the most acclaimed films from this year's more prominent film festivals, making for a weeklong primer in the best of world cinema.

AFI Fest's schedule includes Germany's "The White Ribbon" (winner of Cannes' Palm d'Or); the U.S. film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Toronto and Sundance audience awards); Spain and Peru's "The Milk of Sorrow" (winner of Berlin's Golden Bear prize); Germany's "Everyone Else" (Berlin's Silver Bear prize); Iran's "About Elly"(Berlin's best director trophy); and China's "City of Life and Death" (San Sebastian's Golden Seashell award).

"Many of our audience members work in the industry, but a surprising number of them haven't seen these films," Kuo says of her programming philosophy. "We approached this as a survey of the year's most significant films. If you're going to make a Top 10 list, you have to see these movies."

While the town's other leading festival, summer's Los Angeles Film Festival, mixes high-profile studio films ("Public Enemies") with sometimes obscure independent dramas and documentaries ("Paper Man," "Bananas"), AFI Fest favors world cinema. "I think the city benefits from different festivals with different agendas spread out through the year," says Robert Koehler, the festival's programming director. "Our focus leans much more toward the international."

It's among the few distinctions between the annual festival and the heavily Americanist institute.

Since its founding in 1967, the AFI has focused its energies on three distinct but sometimes overlapping endeavors: preserving the nation's film heritage, training the next generation of filmmakers at its Los Angeles film school, and recognizing and celebrating U.S. film excellence through annual awards, tributes, screenings and festivals.

The AFI campus, adjacent to Griffith Park, has been home to some of the industry's most prominent filmmakers. AFI Conservatory (as the two-year film school is known) alumni include directors Ed Zwick ("Defiance"), Terrence Malick ("The Thin Red Line") and David Lynch ("Blue Velvet"); screenwriters Paul Schrader ("Taxi Driver"), Scott Frank ("Get Shorty") and Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"); and producers Steve Golin ("Babel"), Marshall Herskovitz ("Blood Diamond") and Mark Waters ("(500) Days of Summer").

Even though the film school tuition (including housing and film production costs) tops $70,000 a year, the campus, which also houses AFI's administrative offices, needs millions in deferred maintenance and capital improvements. Many offices are oppressively hot in the summer and bone-chillingly frigid in the winter. Current staff members complain that the electrical system is so antiquated (the campus was formerly Immaculate Heart College) they can't run portable heaters and coffee makers at the same time without blowing a fuse.

While the 40-year-old conservatory is still among the nation's top film schools, even some AFI faculty members say it may no longer be considered in the same league (and certainly does not attract as many multimillion-dollar gifts) as similar M.F.A. programs at USC and UCLA. At the same time, Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts has poured a fortune into its new Orange County campus and may soon be a much closer AFI rival.

Gazzale and Nancy Harris, AFI's chief operating officer, concede that the campus needs work. "There will be a significant capital investment in this building," Gazzale says, noting that some work already has begun and that AFI's final, $500,000 payment on buying the campus will be made next year, freeing up some buildings and grounds capital. "We have work to do, and we're doing it."

In a potentially troublesome development, the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges has deferred its accreditation of the conservatory. Gazzale and Harris say they are confident the school will receive WASC's endorsement soon when it better understands the quality of AFI's students and their work after a WASC visit to AFI in November.

Gazzale says that even if AFI's air conditioning, soundproofing and electrical system is dodgy, its filmmaking tools -- such as cameras and editing bays -- are not.

"The equipment [the students] work on is the finest in the business," he says. Harris says Chapman "may have a better infrastructure and building" but adds that "I'd love to put our fellows up against theirs any day."

Not long after Gazzale replaced Jean Firstenberg in AFI's top spot in November 2007, AFI reorganized its staff to trim its payroll and eliminate redundancies. Last summer and fall, AFI eliminated 22 full-time positions while adding 10 new positions, for a total of 130 full-time employees (Firstenberg remains a consultant, earning $72,000 a year).

One of the hardest-hit departments was the AFI catalog. Having recently lost a two-year, $300,000 pledge for the catalog from the National Endowment for the Humanities, AFI eliminated five catalog positions, three of which were full time. Catalog executive editor and project director Patricia Hanson recently retired, but the AFI is looking to replace her, Gazzale and Harris say.

The catalog, started in 1968, represents a remarkable undertaking with a devoted fan base -- a 50,000-entry compendium of not only the detailed credits for every American feature since 1893, but also a repository of plot summaries and scholarly histories of those movies. Having once had as many as 11 researchers and editors, the catalog now has a full-time staff (counting Hanson's position) of three, currently finishing their review of films from 1975.

Over the next year, AFI will explore building an association of scholars (who may or may not be paid) to work on the catalog. "We want to build an academic network and say, 'Help us fulfill this promise,' " Gazzale says. "And the editing staff will grow." Plans call to add five full-time research assistants next year.

Although AFI's annual "Life Achievement Award" has moved from the popular USA Network to the lower-profile TV Land, it remains the institute's largest annual fundraiser. Thanks to donations and an unspecified license fee, the 2007 show, which honored Al Pacino, netted AFI about $2 million, while 2008's tribute to Warren Beatty brought in about $1.7 million, says Bruce Neiner, AFI's chief financial officer. July's tribute to Michael Douglas, which made around $1.6 million, was seen in about 500,000 households, a steep decline from previous years, and a collapse from 2002's honoring of Tom Hanks, seen in some 2.9 million households.

Because General Motors pulled out as a sponsor of the best-in-multiple-genres roundup "AFI's 10 Top 10," part of "AFI's 100 Years . . ." series, that 2008 CBS broadcast lost more than $1.1 million, Neiner says. AFI's annual revenues were $27.6 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year, the most recent figures available.

Tom Pollock, the former Universal Studios head who is vice chair of AFI's board of trustees, says that in difficult economic conditions AFI has fared better than several local arts organizations, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which suspended (then temporarily relaunched) its film screening program. While there have been AFI layoffs and pay freezes, he says, "Luckily, we haven't yet had to do any serious program cutting."

Pollock says that while AFI's endowment needs to grow by $50 million or more, the institute's most trying times are behind it.

"AFI is still a great organization," he says. "It's just struggling like everybody else in this economy. But it will come through with flying colors."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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