I just received this very important appeal. Coming as it does on the heels of 20th Century Fox’s closing of its longtime research library (news I broke on July 1st), I despair for the way that Hollywood doesn’t seem to give a damn beyond lip service about preserving its movie history. But for the American Film Institute to not make a No. 1 priority this work on its catalog of every film ever made is not just unthinkable but also unfathomable. Every AFI donor should be up in arms over this (update at bottom):

To: Nikki Finke/Deadline Hollywood Daily

Our names are Cathy Root and Vicki Botnick, and until 25 Jul 2008, we were Associate Editor and Copy Editor, respectively, of the AFI Catalog. The Catalog was started in 1968 as a preservation project to record every American film ever made. It was a particularly beloved project for film researchers, and much praised by industry insiders such as Kenneth Turan, who called it “nothing less than an authoritative Oxford English Dictionary of American film.”

Today, the Catalog has been eviscerated.  After years of promising funding and fund-raising, while systematically cutting staff and budgets and thwarting our attempts to raise money, the AFI laid off nearly all of the staff, leaving only two full-time cataloguers and the Executive Editor.

The entries, beginning in the 1880s, had reached 1973, by any measure an odd year to end the project’s sweeping scope. With the skeletal staff, there is little hope of completing the 1970s in any timely fashion.  Although the AFI has promised to try to raise funds, and has obtained a $150,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation and a $50,000 grant from the Norris Foundation, to our knowledge, there has been no outreach to the prominent members of the film industry.

We know that the AFI, like all institutions right now, is suffering financial hardships. But the way in which this important, lauded project has been gutted, the way in which it has been handled and the disingenuous manner in which it has been framed, is galling to those of us who have given most of our professional lives to this worthy project.

Here is an excerpt of how the new AFI president, Bob Gazzale, represented his actions:

“I see this as a temporary challenge – another hurdle at a time when government support for the arts is in decline.  Know that the AFI Catalog, and in fact, building a more aggressive means for its completion, remains a priority of the institute… our goal is not to just finish 1974.  It is to finish the Catalog.”

We’re concerned that the AFI Development Department has not initiated a campaign to raise money for the Catalog. A public appeal for funds to reverse the staff cutbacks needs to be made immediately if the Catalog is to continue.  It takes approximately eight months to train a new cataloger, and consequently, retaining the old staff would be optimal.

We are appealing to you to publicize the financial crisis at the Catalog, hoping that if public is aware of the situation and truly values the Catalog, someone will come forward to save the project.  If not, it is unlikely the Catalog will exist beyond Jul 2009.

Thanks so much for your attention.

UPDATE: An AFI insider emails me that “it is true – and regrettable – that the Catalog has been cut back. The sole reason is that funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities supporting the Catalog has been eliminated this year. But even under the pressure of government cutbacks, AFI has not stopped work on the Catalog. The AFI remains committed to the project and, in fact, AFI worked hard to find several foundations that stepped up and increased their support for the program. I can tell you that the current leadership of the AFI — led specifically by its new president, Bob Gazzale — is as committed to AFI’s longstanding mission to protect America’s film history as any group of people on the national arts scene today.” …Sorry, but I’ll only believe that when I see the finished catalog.

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