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Little Known US Film Agency Seeks Spotlight - 2003-04-28


Many nations provide support for their country's filmmakers. But here in the United States, the major movie studios are so prosperous that no government support is really needed. But there is one American organization that does support filmmaking, though it receives much less publicity than the Hollywood studios.

A large crowd of movie fans greeted the arrival of actor Clint Eastwood when he recently opened the American Film Institute's newly-renovated Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. And one of Mr. Eastwood's favorite films, the classic, 1934 drama The Ox Bow Incident, starring a youthful Henry Fonda, was the opening film in the restored 1938 Art Deco-styled theater.

It's likely that, movie stars and classic movies aside, many in the crowd outside or inside the theater knew little about the activities of the organization running the theater, the American Film Institute (AFI).

Back in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the National Endowments for the arts and humanities. A couple years later, the American Film Institute was formed as another government agency supporting the arts. But outside of Los Angeles and Washington, most Americans have no idea what the AFI does, or that it even exists.

Director of the AFI Silver Theater Murray Horwitz, describing its various activities, said, "It's very involved in film preservation, archiving and cataloguing. It's very involved in new technologies of film and video. And it's very much involved in education. That's where probably, in terms of number of employees at AFI, the bulk of our effort [is]."

In 1969, the AFI started the Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles, California, to help train aspiring filmmakers. Less publicized is AFI's education efforts for young persons. "AFI has an extraordinary kindergarten through 12th grade education program in screen literacy," explained Murray Horwitz. "Teachers are trained and given the tools of movie making. A couple video cameras go into each classroom and kids make their own movies, basically. We teach them the tools of editing, writing, casting, how to shoot. They understand then, how the art of the moving image reaches the screen.

"This is extraordinarily important," continued Mr. Horwitz. "If you were living in the 15th century, and someone invented something called the printing press, it would suddenly become important to know how to read and write. In our age, probably the majority of information now comes to us through the screen," he said. "So we think it's extremely important for kids to understand the tools of how to express themselves on screen and how to watch and listen critically."

Filmmaking is sometimes regarded as a somewhat elitist pursuit, especially behind the camera and in management. So Mr. Horwitz said the American Film Institute is making a special effort to reach diverse communities from its suburban Maryland theater. "I think it will raise the profile of AFI's effort in education. We're in the community, a real-life community, Silver Spring, Maryland an extraordinarily diverse corner of the world," he said. "There are all kinds of people here: young people, old people, different ethnic groups, different racial groups. We're just two blocks from a racially-integrated part of the District of Columbia. We're right off the Metro line, the subway. There's a lot of hub-bub, a lot of life. It's a very lively place where we are."

Among those attending the recent Silver Theater opening was acclaimed film critic and author Richard Schickel. He said the American Film Institute plays a valuable role supporting areas of filmmaking not as financially lucrative as studio productions such as independent and documentary movies. "The American film industry has come to a kind of understanding that independent American films are not produced as our big commercial films are, and some [intervention] is needed to support that kind of filmmaking," he said. "There's certainly a need for film education an enormous need for people to have a stronger historical conscious about movies-all of these things the AFI attempts to address. But it doesn't have the resources that a government-subsidized film academy, historical research center and all those things would have. But it's by no means the only undernourished institution in the United States."

AFI's Murray Horwitz agrees that his organization's focus is much different than that of other countries' film commissions. "I don't think there should be more official government support for the industry or for filmmakers in general," said Mr. Horwitz. "I do applaud the efforts of the National Endowment for the Arts and state and local arts agencies in trying to get funds into the hands of filmmakers and production entities, especially independents to make the documentary and narrative films they want to make.

"But I think we have a grand tradition in this country of not subsidizing the arts too much," he continued. "I'm familiar with countries in South America, Asia and Europe where there's a huge subsidy and some in North America. Artists get used to making a certain kind of art, a certain safe kind of art, without much regard for the audience. That may be overstating or simplifying it, but I think it's true in a great many art forms."

Former Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel agrees government support for the arts is limited. "It seems it's not the American way. The government does not generously or, in my opinion, appropriately support arts institutions," he said. "I wish that would change, and I wish America were a grown-up-enough culture. The minute the government gets into it, something gets subsidized that some right-wing doesn't like and there's a big scandal. But in other governments, they say, 'Ehh, they're artists and in general, they do more good than harm.' I wish Americans would get that grown-up about their cultural institutions."

The AFI's Horwitz added that in America, private sources may serve as another means of financial support for independent filmmakers, or the arts in general, when government support is not forthcoming. "By the way, I do support increased government funding for the arts, but only as a kind of leverage: only as a way to signal to our nation that artistic expression is very important to our civilization," he said. "What happened in the days the National Endowment for the Arts was not well-funded, was that corporations, foundations and others stepped up, and there was more support for the arts."

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