Ray Barry retires from AFI Silver
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center; Credit: Visit Montgomery

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“My world doesn’t exist.”

That’s how Ray Barry, whose long tenure as director of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center ended on March 31, sums up the sea of changes he’s seen in his time working for the American Film Institute. 

Anyone in the D.C. area who’s ever seen a movie at the AFI, whether it’s a Hollywood classic, a foreign film, or a documentary, can thank Barry. He’s been at the institute for nearly half a century. His time goes back to the days when the AFI meant a Kennedy Center auditorium festooned with artfully hung car parts painted a rugged Yves Klein blue. He saw the institution through a stunning new chapter, leading the effort to transform a then-shuttered and neglected movie house on Silver Spring’s Colesville Road into the majestic AFI Silver of today.

And now he’s closing the curtain on this storied career.

Barry was instrumental in making D.C. a city rich in film festivals. His initiatives included the AFI/Discovery Channel SILVERDOCS Documentary Film Festival and the annual AFI European Union Film Showcase, as well as the Latin American Film Festival.

So why retire now? Barry just thought it seemed like a good time to step down from the theater he helped revitalize. He started on the Silver project in 1997 and opened the art deco showcase in 2003, which not only offered a state-of-the-art movie facility, but helped revitalize downtown Silver Spring. While the theater hasn’t quite bounced back to pre-pandemic numbers, “in the post-COVID environment, we seem to be on pretty stable ground,” Barry says. 

Todd Hitchcock, who has most recently served as director of programming and associate director at the Silver, has been named Barry’s replacement. He has worked for AFI since the inaugural edition of SILVERDOCS in 2003 and navigates a theatrical landscape that’s very different from the one Barry entered 50 years ago.

“It blows my mind to imagine trying to put together a festival with films being shown before their commercial releases, and you’re sending letters in the mail to people in faraway countries,” explains Hitchcock. “And the trust that these heavy objects [film prints are shipped in heavy cases that can weigh 40 pounds or more] will show up on time. It’s very different from the version I do.”

Even in the 20 years that Hitchcock has been programming, he’s seen major changes. “The connectivity of email and websites, in terms of making it that much more feasible to actually get in touch and make arrangements to do such a thing, has been an unbelievable game changer,” he says. “It’s such a platitude to talk about digital this and digital that as a revolution, but it is. At the point in time when I started, and that wasn’t the norm yet and films were still being shot on celluloid, and digital was still this subset and nowhere near the resolution we have now.” 

The move to digital, says Hitchcock, has really changed the game for some of the theater’s annual major events, including both its Latin American and African film festivals. “It’s truly revolutionary how much more filmmaking we’re seeing from those countries,” he adds. “Completely different from where we were 30 years ago. And it’s been about making means of creation that much more accessible. It sounds basic, but it didn’t exist before, and it’s amazing to see.”

Ray Barry (center) at his retirement party with AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale (left) and Todd Hitchcock; Credit: Bruce Guthrie

As it did for many theaters across the country, the pandemic put a damper on business; the Silver closed for 15 months, but managed to stay afloat thanks to various levels of government support. There have been some ups and downs since reopening in May 2021, but the past two months have been the most successful run since that May, and that’s been encouraging. 

“What’s really leading our results is the festival and repertory programming,” says Hitchcock. Such recent successes include a series of films introduced by crime novelist and Silver Spring resident George Pelecanos, who hosted a healthy Friday night crowd in March for a screening of the 1973 Donald Westlake adaptation The Outfit.

What will AFI look like under Hitchcock’s direction? “I’m not looking to shuffle the deck a whole lot with the team we have here,” he says.

He’s excited for upcoming programs such as the weeklong run of the documentary We Are Fugazi from Washington, D.C. (showing daily through April 13). And in summer, AFI launches a new collaborative series with the Library of Congress, the Library of Congress Festival of Film and Sound from June 15 to 18, which will offer many rarely seen titles in 35mm prints, including the 1928 Frank Capra action film Submarine, as well as the 1936 drama Craig’s Wife, from pioneering woman director Dorothy Arzner. (Writer’s note and disclosure: My day job is with the LoC.)

Hitchcock has also been tapped to head AFI’s national programming team, a responsibility that includes overseeing the 37th annual AFI FEST in Los Angeles this fall. In a press release, Hitchcock says, “Throughout my time at AFI, it has been a joy to be able to connect audiences with the best in world cinema, both past and present, through our programs at AFI Silver. I’m thrilled to now lead the team that will create that experience for the AFI FEST audience.”

Going forward, Barry says he’s happy to “sit in the theater and be part of the audience without worrying how the show goes.”