AFI FEST 1995 Buster PosterIt was only supposed to be called, simply, Filmex '86, the festival's fifteenth anniversary, and costly preparations for it were more than 80% complete as 1986 began. Then the festival's opening, only a month away, was abruptly cancelled. A blown last minute merger attempt with Gary Essert's new American Cinematheque group required the festival cancellation as a condition of Cinematheque funding that would never come through. Essert's second demand was the dismissal of Filmex executive director Suzanne McCormick, the first woman to run a major film festival in Los Angeles and one of the first in the country.

Suzanne McCormick
Suzanne McCormick,
Filmex executive director 1984-'86.
She had a vision, but they never really gave her a chance.

Formerly the general manager of Chicago's well-regarded film festival, McCormick surprised many skeptics with a successful Olympic edition Filmex in July 1984. McCormick also proved adept at cutting budgets, moving the festival to the many screens of Westwood in 1985. But she never got the support she'd been promised by the Filmex board, still riven with acrimony after the prolonged ouster of Gary Essert.

The Filmex board of directors hastily approved an alternative plan, an outright takeover by the American Film Institute, a far larger organization with a national charter. Ken Wlaschin's Manor House officeTwo years previously, Suzanne McCormick made a shrewd deal to move the film festival headquarters to its own building on the AFI campus, the Manor House, where it remains to this day, more than thirty years later.

Even Essert publicly conceded the talent and reputation of Ken Wlaschin, the artistic director and film selector who was brought in with McCormick and stayed on afterwards. Ken, a prize acquisition for AFI, became the new festival chief. Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute, was quite a formidable leader. She knew that Filmex had useful assets worth trading for. For a quarter century, longer than anyone before or since, she ran the institute with an iron fist, administering budgets and exerting power that Gary Essert could only dream of.

AFI FEST Hollywood ribbon cutting
Setting up the ribbon-cutting shot:
AFI Director Jean Firstenberg, L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, AFI President Charlton Heston, Hollywood Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, Universal Studios Chairman Tom Pollock. Gary, clearing the frame at right, exultantly flaunts the 70mm "ribbon".

AFI also brought over general manager Gary McVey, who drafted plans and began to assemble a festival staff for a re-launch in March 1987. But Firstenberg was dissatisfied by the festival name; she didn't want to do anything that would leave AFI with any of Filmex's liabilities, and also probably felt that the financial risks she and the institute were taking on behalf of the festival should be worth a name change at the very least. Wlaschin and McVey, familiar with Munich's FilmFest, suggested FilmFest Los Angeles as the festival's compromise name. "FilmFest" sounded enough like Filmex to catch on easily. But it sounded far too much like Filmex to Jean, so her choice was AFI FEST, then and now more formally the American Film Institute Los Angeles International Film Festival.

Besides its namesake annual festival in Hollywood, after nearly thirty years still one of the largest and most glamorous public film events in America, the AFI FEST office would create many other targeted mini-festivals in L.A. as well as operate festivals and events in Washington, New York, and Dallas.

AFI FEST 1989 flyer
Once upon a time before the internet: 100,000 AFI FEST flyers were printed and distributed for every festival.

The early years of AFI FEST were exhausting but exhilarating times of change in Hollywood and in international moviemaking. Britain and other parts of Europe took the lead, but the Eighties would be less Eurocentric than the Sixties. Australia had emerged as a stronger filmmaking nation; Hong Kong and Taiwanese films experienced a worldwide boom that continues to this day; there were new stirrings in African screen artists. Mexico and many other Latin American countries had their best domestic audiences since the Forties. The Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc were in their final years, though there were few outward signs of it. Gary McVey's travels in the area, from 1985 on, would later make this a critical focus of the American Cinema Foundation.

AFI FEST Century City flags - Soviet era
Communism's Last Stand
Century City, California, 1991

As Ken Wlaschin transitioned into heading AFI's National Center for Film Preservation, Gary McVey took over Ken's AFI FEST duties. For the rest of the Eighties and Nineties, the festival enjoyed the challenges of new audiences and new demographics. Under McVey's leadership the festival held its first annual Latino, Independent, and Hong Kong film weeks, and revived crowd-pleasing Filmex traditions like the all-night movie marathon (1995's All Night: Left Wing versus Right Wing was a particular success). Video and information technology transformed the festival circuit in the Nineties, with AFI playing a major role, and the festival was often the occasion of public introduction of new ideas.

Gary McVey on KCET for AFI Fest 1995

After Gary left in 1997 to become director of the ACF, AFI FEST has had a succession of directors. Christian Gaines, director from 2000 through 2008, was particularly successful at preserving and extending the festival's place on Hollywood's calendar.

The Great Recession didn't spare AFI FEST nor any other non-profit cultural organization, including the ACF. In the coming years, survival will mean continuing to find a relevant role in introducing new films and types of film to audiences.

Working With, and Learning From Ken Wlaschin

Gary McVey, Ken Wlaschin, and Jean Firstenberg
Gary McVey, Ken Wlaschin, and Jean Firstenberg.
It couldn't always be this convivial.

Obviously, Ken meant more to me than the best boss I ever had, but he was that, too: generous, tolerant, slow to anger and quick to forgive. When I met Ken in 1983, he was already one of the world's most prominent film festival directors, having been at the helm of London's since 1969. By the time he became my boss, we'd already become friends.

Most festival directors guard travel privileges jealously, but Ken kindly put me on the festival circuit right away; before the Eighties were out, AFI FEST sent me to festivals in the USSR, Czechoslovakia (as they were then), Hungary, Britain and Germany. A true internationalist himself, he was always interested in what you'd just learned in your travels, and a Wlaschin "debriefing" meant a wine-cheered long lunch while he plied you with funny, brainy questions about the latest Lars Von Trier or a spicy rumor about the Swedish Film Institute. When I defended Russian films (PDF 1.5MB) in Spain's biggest newspaper, Ken made sure that Jean got an instant translation, reassuringly sensible, so she wouldn't feel blindsided. A natural politician, he taught me a lot about survival in a bureaucracy and a lot else besides.

Ken Wlaschin on Sunset Blvd, AFI FEST 1993
Ken had it all—knowledge, wit, decency and grace.
In front of the Chateau Marmont hotel, AFI FEST 1993.

Kenneth Glen Wlaschin
July 12, 1934—November 10, 2009

Obituary in Britain's The Independent »

Ken's persistence and charm, not to mention his longevity on the world festival circuit often won disproportionate rewards. Everyone from projectionists to Harvey Weinstein was inclined to give Ken a break. He'd long been kind to the strong-minded woman who headed a tiny company that had, miraculously, secured North American distribution rights to Krysztof Kieslowski's "Dekalog". So AFI FEST scooped New York, as well as other larger and more prominent festivals.

It's a shame we seldom ended up traveling together. We ran into each other at the London film festival, Ken's old stomping ground, and we did two trips to Cannes in the mid-Nineties. There, I would find him holding court at a seaside restaurant, the center of a mob of old friends like Todd McCarthy, Florence Dauman, Ulrich and Erika Gregor, Agnes Varda or Albert Johnson. Ken smiled and waved you over to the table, and because of him, you became friends too. He was widely loved and will long be missed.

—Gary McVey