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AFI's declining 'best of' moments


I've never forgotten a maxim I first heard from the famously tenacious rock manager Irving Azoff: "The only thing worse than selling out is selling out and not being bought." It applies all too well to the American Film Institute, which was established in 1967 as a nonprofit organization devoted to "advancing and preserving the art of the moving image."

The AFI runs a conservatory for filmmakers, oversees an L.A.-based film festival, acquires films for preservation and gave its 31st annual Life Achievement Award to Robert De Niro in a ceremony Thursday that will air on the USA Network on Monday.

Unfortunately, these days the AFI is best known to moviegoers as the purveyor of 100-greatest-movies lists and TV shows that promote the history of film -- and the AFI -- in almost equal measure. It's also still licking its wounds from a disastrous attempt last year to elbow into the Oscar season with "The AFI Awards." The program, which placed near the bottom of the Nielsen ratings, did so poorly that CBS scrapped plans for a repeat this year.

There's nothing inherently wrong with a show called "100 Years ... 100 Heroes and Villains," the AFI's most recent TV special. The media landscape is littered with cheesy "greatest films" lists and TV shows. Entertainment Weekly can scarcely get through a month without having a "100 Greatest Videogames" or "The Top 50 Cult Movies" issue. What makes the AFI's parade of 100 best shows and lists so depressing is that an institution devoted to celebrating history is creating programming that is so disposable. "100 Years ... 100 Heroes" is the kind of show Dick Clark could do in his sleep. Once you put the AFI's name on it, we're entitled to have higher expectations for a show whose critical analysis of film history is about as profound as the lyrics to a song by Avril Lavigne.

"The AFI was supposed to honor greatness and educate people in film history," says Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern. "But they've morphed into another organization that simply markets celebrity culture. They've become a national version of KCET, pandering to the middlebrow tastes of their subscribers. These bogus polls and lists and 100-best shows contribute nothing to film culture or the culture at large."

In fairness, the AFI is in a harsh financial bind. In its early years, the organization received generous funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. But federal funding has since dwindled to a trickle, forcing the AFI to rely on contributions from private and corporate entities to cover its annual $14-million-or-so operating budget that pays for running a conservatory for filmmakers, movie preservation and various film events. Insiders say the organization ran a deficit last year, though it expects to break even this year. The AFI has been especially hurt by media consolidation. Where in the past it would get a donation from both CBS and Paramount or Disney and ABC, it now simply gets one corporate payment.

This scramble for money spawned the "100 Best" TV specials, which today bring in roughly $1 million per show. The initial shows were ratings hits, but the recent "100 Heroes" show finished a mediocre No. 40 amid a pack of summer network reruns.

AFI supporters say I'm being a cinema snob. "After we did the first '100 Years' of cinema show, the top-rented video at Blockbuster was 'Citizen Kane,' " explains producer Tom Pollock, a former AFI board chairman. "If for one moment people are watching 'Citizen Kane' instead of 'Dumb and Dumber,' I have to think this is a good thing in terms of celebrating America's film history."

When lions roared

Still, nothing symbolizes the AFI's pursuit of bland, inoffensive TV programming more than the annual Life Achievement Award, its best known and longest running TV event. The show debuted in 1973, honoring the fabled film director John Ford, who, frail and near death, was wheeled up to the podium by John Wayne.

The early years found awards going to cinema's old masters, including James Cagney, Alfred Hitchcock, Sir David Lean and Frank Capra. What made the show special was having a pride of white-haired lions in the room. When John Huston was feted in 1983, he was surrounded by the likes of Ava Gardner, Sam Spiegel and Orson Welles, who sonorously intoned: "We've been friends since the world was young and we've heard the chimes of midnight. We've turned the moon to blood. I come before you as an expert witness."

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