Looking back on the first decade of the American Film Institute, director George Stevens Jr. sums up the organization's primary acheivement in word: "Survival."
He intends the comment only half in jest for Stevens has in fact survived his share of financial, personnel and policy challenges since the AFI was created by an act of Congress to further the film and television arts.
In its 10 years under Stevens, 45, the AFI has preserved and restored 14,000 films; distributed $1.7 million in grants to independent filmmakers; set up a center for film studies in Los Angles: created a repertory film theater at the Kennedy Center; founded the film journal with the highest circulation in the country, and increased its membership from 7,000 to 35,000 in the last two years.
Tonight, President Carter will be the host of what is billed as the first White House celebration of the movies, with "everyone from Lillian Gish to Keith Carradine," Stevens says.Later at a gala in the Kennedy Center Opera House, the glitter will continue as film stars announce the results of the AFI membership's vote on the 10 best American movies ever made - and the gala will be taped for broadcast Monday night on CBS.
For Stevens these anniversary events are glamorous frosting on the institutional cake - although he is savvy enough to point out that the net special will give the AFI both its first chance to make a membership pitch to a potential television audience of 30 million people and $200,000 in revenue as well.
And that is exactly what risks - and delights - people about George Stevens Jr. His defenders call him a clever politician who has managed to court Hollywood, and provide a cash slow for the AFI's coffers. His detractors say he has managed to turn what should be a serious institution into a Hollywood fan club Sats Stevebs: "I guess the question: 'If you had $10 million from the government every year, would you do something like this?' Yeah, I think you would. Because it's educational. I don't think that because it's popular it's bad. Going out and having to sell tickets to a dinner - well, that's not much fun. But there are some things you have to do.
"People forget some of the other things the AFI does. We helped finance Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, U.S.A.' One of our first independent filmmaker grants went to Robert Kramer. That guy is a genuine revolutionary. I remember after we showed his film "Ice'n (about urban guerrilla warfare), Richard Walsh of the International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (a major Hollywood union), who was on our board, was really offended. And I was touched when Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier both got up at the same time and defended the right of Kramer to make that kind of film. Now, they may not have agreed that the film, but they knew we had to do things like that."
The AFI was created in 1967 by the National Arts Council, with a mandate to act as a point of focus and coordination and a catalyst for the advancement of the artistic potential of film and television in the United States.
It began with $1.3 million in government funds matched by an equal Ford Foundation grant. This year $2.4 million of its $6 million operating budget will come from the government, the rest from private and corporate contributors.
Initially the organization placed its heaviest emphasis on the archival program. All films made before 1951 were printed on nitrate-based stock, which eventually decomposes. The AFI has been transfering these negatives to permanent acetate-base film, and also tracking down portions of films chopped out and lost.
In 1967 the AFI also began the task of cataloging every feature film made in the U.S. After completing 20 years of films, the project came to a halt for lack of money - and over $200,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities designated for the project are now tied up until matching funds are secured.
"We finally got to the stage where our trustees had to decide to divide things up in a manner than matched them to where the funds are secured.
"We finally got to the stage where our trustees had to decide to divide things up in a manner than match them to where the funds were coming from," Stevns says. "Otherwise things start to nibble each other up. For instance, Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, UCLA and the Library of Congress have to match the federal funds on the archival program. And they do. Nobody has come up with money to match the catalog project."
Financial problems have hindered AFI projects (the Kennedy Center theater, for instance , remained in the planning stage for years until Jack L. Warner contributed $250,000 to actually build it in 1973), but Stevens has also had to counter criticism of his concept of the AFI's function.
The staff of 135 has had a substantial turnover rate, and disgruntled employees, finding projects such as the film catalog and educational programs cut back or halted, haver periodically criticized Stevens for "Hollywood" priorities.
After AFI opened its Center for Advanced Film Studies in Beverly Hills in 1969, independnet filmmaker Ed Emshwiller observed that the government might as well has set up a writers' school to turn out best-selling novels.
"I understand all the criticism," he says, "and I can only say that there were choices that had to be made. I have no regrets. We came into being in a very tough time. There were a kind of anti-institutional, guilty-'til-proven-innocent spirit around. There are going to be disagreemnts in any institution. Ultimately somebody has to make a decision. And I think that there are not many fellows who have gone through the Center who would claim that we're trying to emphasize a Hollywood point of view. There's really no such thing, per se.
"Sure, we made some real mistakes.
After the Center opened, I felt we had to produce a feature film. So we sunk a couple of hundred thousand dollars into a film, "In Pursuit of Treasure," that never got finished. That was a painful lesson that the AFI shouldn't be involved in that business. But when I decided to do it, there really were no young people making features. George Lucas and Steve Spielberg were unknown, and the only person anybody had really heard about was Francis."
Francis is Francis Coppola, director of "The Godfather" and a friend of Stevens. Coppola, in fact, had Stevens come over to the Philippines to perform in his $28-million Vietnam war epic, "Apocalypse Now."
"I was in an uncuttable scene with Harvey Keitel," Stevens says. "He was a young captain and I was this mystery figure telling him to go upstream and terminate Marlon Brando with extreme prejudice. It was a great scene and then Francis decided to fire Harvey and replace him with Martin Sheen and I would up on the cutting room floor."
Perhaps part of the criticism made of George Stevens Jr. is prompted by jealousy. He fits easily into the Hollywood scene, largely because his father was one of Hollywood's classic director; George Stevens, who made "Shane," "Gunga Din," "Giant" "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and dozens of othe films.
He also was part of the Kennedy circle (he still wears a PT-109 tie clasp), and produced the memorial film "Years of Lightning, Day of Drums" after John Kennedy was assassinated. He is wealthy man - wealthy enough to buy a half-million dllar house in Georgetown with a private tennis court - and that does not sit well with some struggling independent filmmakers.
At the same time, Stevens has put his own wealth on the line to help some filmmakers. When AFI fellow Terry Malick was making "Badlands," Stevens says he shot off a check for $10,000 from his own pocket, jokingly telling Malick that he was tossing his son's college education out the window.
"Rule One," says Stevens, "is that anyone with any sense in life does not invest in movies."
Malick returned the gesture: When the film made money, he donated $5,000 to the AFI.
Looking down the road, Stevens hopes that the AFI eventually will be able to build a film museum somewhere in Washington.
"I agree with Dr. Boorstin (Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin)" says Stevens. "Film should be a museum on a par with the Air and Space Museum: One room for Buster Keaton, another for Per Loroenz, another for Ed Murrow, with a real curatorial staff. Instead of a Matissue exhibit, they'd by running a Renoir show for a mouth, or Italian Neo Realism."
Stevens also hopes that the AFI will open a film theater in Los Angeles, and soon see the circulation of its magazine at 100,000. He's concerned about preserving color films, which need to be stored in three color separations to ensure permanence, as well as collecting television programming.
"We keep thinking about changing our name to Film and Television," he says. "It keeps coming up. I called CBS to try to get the 'Person to Person' of Morrow with Bogart for our gala and they told me 'n' existe pas. '"
Film and television, Gerge Stevens Jr. says over and over, are our national art forms.
"In the case of film," he says, "what's new at the moviest is going to be less a problem than what exists. In 1941 there were 504 features made. In 1975 there were 117. I hope in 10 more years a lot more people will know about the AFI, and that it will become an increasingly important national institution."
And then with a grin on his face, Stevens predicts the program for the AFI 20th Anniversary Gala.
"It will be an incredible evening at the Kennedy Center," he says. "With the greatest independent films of all time."%