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The AFI National Film Theater at the Kennedy Center has long been the lingering smile of the American Film Institute’s Cheshire Cat presence in Washington. Still, many dedicated local filmgoers were shocked by AFI’s March 6 announcement of a “major refocusing” of the theater’s programming. Abandoning its 25-year commitment to repertory, AFI announced that it will present only recent films—like next month’s 10-day run of Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan—and “larger, showcase events.” Under the plan, the theater’s projectors will flicker only 12 to 14 days a month.

Ironically, the cutback comes after what have reportedly been several of the theater’s most successful months in years. Such diverse programs as an Israeli Film Festival, a revival of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and retrospectives of films by Frank Capra and Andrei Tarkovsky have all drawn well.

The retrenchment “is a direct result of the drop in federal funding,” says AFI director of communications Seth Oster. For most of the last decade, the National Endowment for the Arts provided AFI with annual grants of $1.5 million or more. In fiscal 1997, however, that figure dropped to $200,000. According to Oster, NEA’s current-year contribution is “less than $40,000” of the institute’s almost $13-million annual budget.

That kind of cut has to hurt, but AFI’s critics argue that the organization should nonetheless maintain its commitment to repertory film. AFI Director Jean Picker Firstenberg didn’t appease repertory’s supporters when she told the Washington Post that “the end of repertory screenings is a national trend. With video, pay per view, and satellite technologies, there’s just not a need to show repertory on a regular basis.”

Bruce Goldstein is one of Firstenberg’s best-qualified skeptics; he runs New York’s Film Forum, which is generally considered the nation’s most successful commercial repertory cinema. He says the format has “probably done better in the last 10 years than in any period. Every Hollywood studio now has a repertory division. That was never true before.

“I don’t understand this,” he continues. “I don’t understand what AFI does. If they’re promoting film preservation, they should preserve exhibition. This is the reason we’re presenting 35mm film. There’s got to be a place to see it. That’s what we’re working for: to keep the films in theaters.”

“I think there’s been a great misunderstanding of what Jean was saying there,” protests Oster. “I think something was a little misquoted, but [there was] also some misinterpretation. The fact is that the greatest cost that AFI incurred in programming the theater was in the repertory events that we did. AFI believes that there is an audience that very much exists and wants repertory-type programming. AFI wishes it could have continued the programming that it was doing in that area, and AFI plans to make every effort to find ways to program, on a new monthly basis, some type of repertory elements. She wasn’t saying that it was not viable. What she was saying was it was not viable for the AFI theater any longer.”

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Goldstein isn’t the only person who wonders what AFI does. Many Washingtonians who work with film also question the institute’s priorities, especially since its headquarters moved from Washington, where AFI was founded 30 years ago, to Los Angeles, where it now has approximately 100 employees. AFI now has only one preservation employee in Washington, even though its film collection is here, stored at the Library of Congress.

None of AFI’s six local workers (three of whom are about to be downsized) would comment for this article, but several former AFI workers were more talkative. They described longstanding tension between the Washington and L.A. operations and argued that AFI has been neglecting its true mission. Several of them believe AFI lost its way when Firstenberg became its director in 1980.

Firstenberg “never had much interest in Washington as a base of operations,” says Eddie Cockrell, who used to program the AFI theater. “The theater exists to show the flag to NEA,” he argues. The managers in L.A. “never liked the theater. They never liked exhibition all that much. They’ve just sort of tolerated it. They drove that theater into the ground. I don’t think they wanted to turn it around.”

The cutbacks at the AFI theater are “a completely emotional decision that comes from the top,” suspects Cockrell, a local film programmer and critic who worked at AFI for 11 years in two stints between 1977 and 1992.

“It’s as if all the museums were closing down, but no one was alarmed because you could still see your favorite paintings on postcards,” he laments.

Cockrell is not the only former AFI employee who believes the organization is poorly managed. Eli Savada, a local free-lance copyright researcher who worked in AFI’s Washington film-preservation office for a total of 14 years, is also dubious about AFI’s Los Angeles-based management. “In L.A. they’re promoting more of the filmmaking side of it. Although they talk about preservation and archives, I don’t think they really care about it.”

Still, Savada doesn’t blame all the theater’s woes on management. “It should never have been at the Kennedy Center,” he says. “You’re not going to get any walk-up business.”

USA Today movie critic Mike Clark, who is also a former AFI theater programmer, says if the country is going to have a national film theater, “it makes a lot of symbolic sense for it to be in Washington.” Still, he recalls, making the theater work was “awfully tough. You could run a sell-out show and still lose money.”

“Speaking pragmatically,” he adds, “if you’re not getting much help from Washington, maybe it does make sense” to cut back.

The theater’s defenders note that its programs have gotten relatively little press, especially from the all-important Washington Post. “I know that the powers that be were always unhappy with the press coverage they got here,” says Cockrell. Since it had little money for advertising, the theater depended on reviews and features; when the Post did a feature on the recent Capra series, for example, attendance swelled.

Some AFI critics wonder if there’s a connection between the cutbacks at the Kennedy Center and AFI’s negotiations to operate the long-dark Silver Theatre in bleak downtown Silver Spring. Cockrell says that to him the cuts suggest “a general housecleaning in preparation for bringing in a new group of people to run the Silver Theatre.”

Oster insists there is no connection between the Foggy Bottom and Silver Spring cinemas. “They are absolutely, completely separate,” he says.

Cockrell also notes that Jerry Pasternak, special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, is Steven Spielberg’s brother-in-law. This is the sort of celebrity connection that appeals to AFI’s L.A. management, he suggests.

But Bill Mooney, who handles Silver Spring redevelopment for the county, says Pasternak is not directly involved in the effort to make a deal with AFI. The renovated Silver, Mooney says, will be used for education programs involving the Montgomery County Public Schools and Montgomery College. Such programs will constitute a “significant” but not necessarily “predominant” use of the facility. He says the county is “pretty close” to an agreement with AFI.

Mooney has no comment on what else AFI might do with the theater. If the institute gets out of the repertory business, however, that leaves little but first-run art-film programming. And with three national art-house chains looking at locations in Washington (see “From Art House to Our House,” 1/23), art-film booking may have little future with AFI, either at the Kennedy Center or in Silver Spring.CP