Two years later, the American Film Institute was founded, initially funded by the NEA, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Ford Foundation, each of which saw the value both in preserving American film and in educating young, new filmmakers in the craft of moviemaking. (Today, the institute is funded through a combination of membership dues, corporate and private funding, tuition from its Conservatory and television licensing.)
Nearly 50 years after its inception, AFI’s mission is threefold: to honor, educate and preserve. To those ends, the annual AFI Awards, including the AFI Life Achievement Award, have honored those whose accomplishments have made an indelible mark on film history; the AFI Conservatory has educated some of the most successful professionals in the business — generations of storytellers who have been honored with Academy Awards, Emmys and the highest recognition at Sundance and Cannes; and the Louis B. Mayer Library has collected and preserved an enormous number of films and documents that tell the story of American film, and as such, of America itself.
But starting an archive from scratch wasn’t easy. By the time the AFI archive was founded in 1967, thousands of movies had already been produced — but not all of them had been preserved. Film is notoriously fragile and vulnerable to decay. In fact, fewer than 20 percent of American films from the 1920s have survived in complete form, and only 10 percent of the movies made in the 1910s are still available. So film archivists have had to find different ways to collect information on the early days of making movies. Over the years, AFI has collected oral histories of early filmmakers, recorded interviews with artists who have spoken at AFI events and established the AFI Catalog, an online resource that provides detailed information on films made in America since 1893, including those for which no film print survives. To date, the AFI Catalog contains entries for more than 60,000 feature-length films and more than 17,000 short films.
Most of what is housed in the archives has found its way to the AFI through donations. The Martin Scorsese Collection, for example, contains donated materials from the legendary director’s films, including scripts, photos, correspondence and director’s notes. Visitors — who are primarily fellows enrolled in the AFI Conservatory, though the archives are open to the public by appointment — can see the original storyboards from Raging Bull or a prop card from Taxi Driver with a handwritten note from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.
The Charles K. Feldman Collection is the largest in the AFI archives. It is also the most sought-after among researchers, mostly because of its size and level of detail. Feldman was an agent and producer whose career in Hollywood spanned four decades during the middle of the 20th century. As an agent, he represented such icons as John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert, and he produced films including The Seven Year Itch, What’s New Pussycat?, Casino Royale (1967) and A Streetcar Named Desire.
“His collection is remarkable,” Vaughn says. “[Over his career] Feldman had contact with most of Hollywood.”
But it isn’t always the leading directors and producers themselves who choose to leave their collection to AFI. Sometimes Hollywood history is found in unexpected places. In 1989, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees was renovating his home in the Hollywood Hills when he discovered several boxes containing letters between the great Austrian-American filmmaker Fritz Lang — best known for his thriller M — and such Hollywood greats as Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre. The entire collection can now be found at the AFI.