AFI Conservatory: Tradition and Change – American Film Institute

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AFI Conservatory: Tradition and Change

At the opening of the AFI Conservatory in September 1969, founding director George Stevens, Jr., inspired the very first class of artists with remarks that ended, “Let us work to assure that we grow and change as film itself does.”

Those words were echoed at Commencement on Wednesday, June 15, 2016 as 116 new storytellers graduated from the AFI Conservatory at the historic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with film icons Quentin Tarantino and Rita Moreno on hand to accept AFI Honorary Degrees, and to bestow wisdom upon this year’s graduating storytellers.

Built by movie mogul Sid Grauman more than 90 years ago as a “temple for talking pictures,” the Chinese Theatre served as a historic setting from which to launch the art form into the future.

As AFI’s graduates head into the next phase of their careers as storytellers, the Conservatory heads into its future, too — with a commitment that has been at its core since it began.

AFI Fellows in 1970
AFI Fellows with Frank Capra (R) in 1970

“We are proud of our history and we embrace change,” said AFI Conservatory Dean Jan Schuette. “And it shows today, in the level of work our Fellows create, how they interact, their talent, their communication, their commitment.”

In the years since its founding, the AFI Conservatory has evolved from a federally funded program akin to an artist colony — whose first class of filmmakers included Caleb Deschanel, Terrence Malick and Paul Schrader — to an accredited MFA program at a top film school with international renown.

“If you look at the AFI Conservatory,” said Schuette, “you see Hollywood over the past 50 years.”

The Conservatory’s continuous success across time can be attributed to its core and founding principle: learning by doing, a proven educational model through centuries of master-apprentice relationships.

“We teach collaboration in filmmaking,” said Schuette. “Together you can make something much greater than what you could have done sitting alone by yourself.”

AFI Conservatory faculty serve more as mentors than traditional teachers. They provide a support system for Fellows, encouraging and inspiring them through their intense involvement in the program.

AFI Fellows are not traditional film school students. They are on average, between their late-20s and mid-30s when they start their training at AFI. In other words, they have lived and worked — as commercial fishermen, composers, scientists, Army captains, investigative journalists, cellists, stand-up comics and more. For this reason, AFI faculty approach them as passionate and dedicated peers.

With MFA accreditation through the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) and the leadership of its Dean, AFI has maintained its original artistic approach while adhering to WSCUC requirements for strategic planning, continuous evaluation and frequent reporting.

“AFI is a creative environment where different perspectives are encouraged and great artistic passion is demanded,” said Bob Gazzale, AFI President and CEO. “We move forward each day with a shared commitment to make AFI the best possible educational experience for the Fellows.”

This has been an extraordinary academic year for Conservatory Fellows and alumni, with awards and achievements spanning from the Oscars® to festivals and beyond.

Following a year of historic accomplishments, the Conservatory looks to the future of this ever-changing medium.  One of the hallmarks of the AFI Conservatory is the great diversity of its Fellows.

The Conservatory is making strides in diversity with its faculty as well.

This year, filmmaker Patricia Riggen has joined the Directing discipline. AFI also tapped one of its own alumnae, Neema Barnette, as a Directing faculty member. Barnette, heralded as the first African American woman to direct a dramatic program for national TV, graduated from the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women (DWW), which, since 1974, has trained hundreds of women in the art of screen directing — and it remains tuition-free.

AFI is also working to bridge the gap between graduation and the working world. In December 2015, DWW added a new job placement program with Lifetime. As part of the network’s Broad Focus initiative, Lifetime’s parent company A+E Networks vowed to employ all of the directors from the DWW Class of 2015.

As film becomes increasingly a digital, shareable medium, AFI is making strides in online distribution for its Fellows with the AFI Conservatory Online Theater. The platform currently offers a decades-deep library of alumni films made at the Conservatory for sale or rental, with new films being added regularly.

For the first time ever, this year AFI sparked career growth opportunities for graduating Fellows by introducing Directing discipline graduates in an intimate “meet-and-greet” screening event with film and television industry members. This is an addition to the decades-long tradition of the larger, cross-disciplinary AFI Conservatory Thesis Showcase.

DWW Class of 2016 with UNREAL co-creator/DWW alumna Sarah Gertrude Shapiro

Various mentorship programs in both film and TV writing are also part of continued growth in career services at the AFI Conservatory, which will continue to strive for excellence and achievement into the future.

Launched in late 2015, AFI Writers’ Room Ready, pairs select AFI Conservatory Screenwriters from the year’s graduating class, and their original television pilot scripts, with accomplished AFI alumni mentors working in film and TV. Three of the four Class of 2015 recipients were women.

These programs and successes exemplify AFI’s ongoing mission to educate the next generation of storytellers — a diverse body of filmmakers, trained by masters of the art form, primed to tell unusual stories in unusual ways, while reflecting the plurality of perspectives in our world.

“The AFI Conservatory is a wellspring of storytelling,” said Gazzale, “and it changes shape with each new class filled with Fellows who dream of the future.”

Pictured atop: AFI Class of 2016

Comments (4)

Phil Allen

Now, as to the politics of your chosen profession,..well, hooray for Hollywood anyway.



Giselle Jenkins

The graduation ceremony yesterday was wonderful! As parents of a directing fellow graduate, we are excited with your graduating class, and thank you for doing such a wonderful job of teaching and mentoring them!



Andrea Calabrese

I’m so proud of Quentin Tarantino for caring enough about film to get a degree from AFI. Congratulations, Quentin! Great job–that’s wonderful news! I’m truly happy for you.



Michael Andolini

As an actor I’d like to congratulate the class of 2016, and all the graduates over the years. And the AFI Conservatory for making it possible to work with tomorrow’s directors today. Proud to be an AFI Conservatory Actor’


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