- The Hidden History of the American Film InstituteThe Cold War, Arts Policy, and American Film Preservation
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Paul Spehr, retired assistant chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress (LOC), has noted that “these days, the moving image archive community has a negative opinion of the AFI’s contribution to film preservation, but the deterioration of AFI’s program came later. AFI launched the preservation program with enthusiasm and imagination.”1 Indeed, the founding of the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1967 was instrumental in creating much of the infrastructure that has allowed the modern American film preservation community to grow and thrive. This included providing support that solidified the LOC’s film preservation and access activities as well as distributing funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), George Eastman House (GEH), and the UCLA Film & Television Archive through 1995, when the federal government ended its support of the AFI.2 Considering that previous scholarship has discussed why government support for motion picture preservation prior to the founding of the AFI tended to be short-lived and project oriented, being fueled by global crises such as World War II, there has been surprisingly little discussion on the reasons for the government helping to form the AFI and support it for three decades.
The AFI’s success in promoting long-term, meaningful government support for motion picture preservation cannot be separated from the Cold War context in which it was founded. The founding director of the organization, George Stevens Jr., had previously been the head of the Motion Picture Service of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). This connection to an agency that produced anti-Soviet messaging for foreign audiences has been treated as incidental in previous scholarship, when in fact Stevens’s work with the USIA was essential to him envisioning the design and structure of the AFI. Likewise, the AFI was technically founded as an independent nonprofit, but with the promise of significant ongoing funding support from the NEA. The government’s contemporary interest in the arts and its creation of the NEA in 1965 was, in part, tied to a desire to reinforce American cultural identity by showing that culture can thrive in a capitalist system. The founders of the AFI also designed it to be a peer institution to the British Film Institute and other government-sponsored cinema organizations from ally and rival nations, with comparisons to these aspirational peers creating expectations that the AFI’s administration was ultimately unable to meet.
BEFORE THE AFI: EARLY EFFORTS AT FILM PRESERVATION
The LOC is now America’s largest film archive, but its collecting wasn’t always intentional. Instead, there were no copyright protections in place specifically for motion pictures [End Page 26] until 1912.3 Any creative or documentary works had to be deposited with the LOC to be registered for copyright, so producers printed films onto long strips of paper and sent them to the library as a series of individual photographs, now commonly known as paper prints. When changes in copyright law in 1912 allowed motion pictures to be registered, the LOC decided that producers only needed to deposit scripts, still shots from the films, and other ancillary materials, but not actual film prints. This was because films were printed on flammable nitrate stock, making storage difficult, expensive, and risky. Additionally, motion pictures were not yet considered artistically on par with novels or other cultural works of enduring value.
Thus 1912 marked the beginning of the LOC’s thirty-year retreat from collecting and preserving films, although the paper prints survived thanks to benign neglect. The studios generally saw no value in the films after their initial run, largely because of rapid changes in production techniques and styles, so they commonly let these works deteriorate or intentionally destroyed them to avoid the costs and risks involved in storing nitrate. A 2013 report funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources found that only 14 percent of feature films produced by Hollywood studios between 1912 and 1929 survive in their entirety today in their...