History – American Film Institute


With Beginnings in the White House Rose Garden

The American Film Institute began as a presidential mandate to establish film as essential to American identity, to elevate the nation’s greatest art form to its deserving place in history. AFI grew from the seeds planted in the White House Rose Garden by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 to a fully rounded Institute that has defined American film for more than half a century — with the mission to educate and inspire.

AFI began in 1967, with Gregory Peck named first chair of the Board of Trustees and George Stevens, Jr., its director and CEO, and a board that featured film luminaries including Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Poitier, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Jack Valenti. Today, the Board continues to be comprised of such artists and icons as Halle Berry, James L. Brooks, Kathleen Kennedy, Eva Longoria, Shonda Rhimes, Steven Spielberg and Ed Zwick.

Until the creation of AFI — well before the days of IMDb — there was no comprehensive index of motion pictures. AFI began, in 1968, recording the first 100 years of American film with the AFI Catalog of Feature Films— the first-ever scholarly listing of films, with vetted information about the existence, availability and sources of films already produced, spanning the entirety of the art form since 1893.

The AFI Catalog marked the beginning of the Institute’s efforts to preserve the heritage of American film. Sparking the movement for film preservation in the U.S., AFI began its first restoration in 1973, with director Frank Capra’s 1937 classic LOST HORIZON. Today, the Library of Congress houses the AFI Collection of more than 60,000 films gathered by the Institute throughout the past five decades.

“The American Film Institute was the first group for the government to recognize cinema as an art form when AFI was formed back in the White House Rose Garden, and it’s something that’s got to be supported for younger generations.” —Martin Scorsese

In 1969, AFI established the AFI Conservatory, a graduate-level program to train narrative filmmakers. The hands-on, learn-by-doing program offers training to future storytellers from a dedicated faculty from the film and television communities, all currently working in the industry, and including masters of the art form. The world-renowned AFI Conservatory continues to train storytellers who work at award-winning levels.

In 1974, AFI founded the AFI Directing Workshop for Women — one of the very first programs of its kind anywhere in the world. This free filmmaker training program is committed to increasing the number of women working professionally in film and television.

The highest honor for a career in American film, the AFI Life Achievement Award began in 1973 as a celebration of an individual who has greatly enriched the art form, and American culture. Following inaugural honoree John Ford, annual recipients of this highest honor for a career in film have included Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Sidney Poitier, Elizabeth Taylor, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Shirley MacLaine, John Williams, Diane Keaton, George Clooney and Denzel Washington, and many more icons.

In 1987, AFI held the first AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival in Hollywood — now AFI FEST presented by Audi — to further celebrate artists and audiences. The festival remains part of AFI’s bicoastal exhibition efforts, with AFI FEST bringing films new and classic, global and domestic, to audiences in the heart of Hollywood.

Across the country, the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD, offers year-round retrospective and cutting-edge, curated programming.

In DC, AFI established its documentary film festival in 1999, now known as AFI DOCS. Each year, the festival celebrates the highest standards in documentary filmmaking, convening U.S. policymakers with filmmakers from all over the world in the heart of our nation’s capital and at the AFI Silver.

AFI, in 1998, unveiled a national celebration of the cinema centennial with AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies, a definitive selection of the greatest 100 films of all time. Following an updated 10th Anniversary of the list in 2007, the Institute then created AFI’s 10 Top 10, raising a necessary spotlight on genres ranging from Fantasy to Gangster, Courtroom Drama to Epic.

In 2000, AFI hosted the first AFI AWARDS, celebrating the year’s most outstanding films and TV series, and the creative ensembles behind them, both in front of and behind the camera.

In the new millennium, AFI partnered with the White House Student Film Festival, inviting K-12 students to screen their films in the East Room of the White House. The Institute has also worked to increase diversity in the storytelling community, including with such renowned programs as the Young Women in Film Intensive, which each year brings young high school women to the AFI Campus to learn the art of filmmaking; and the Cinematography Intensive for Women, a tuition-free workshop for women early in their journey as cinematographers looking to advance their craft.

The American Film Institute champions the moving image as an art from. We believe in the revolutionary power of visual storytelling to share perspectives, inspire empathy and drive culture forward.

AFI membership is open to the public and relies on the generous financial support from people like you to provide funding for AFI programs and initiatives. Visit our membership page here to learn more.