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AFI is America's promise to preserve the history of the motion picture, to honor the artists and their work and to educate the next generation of storytellers.The American Film Institute was founded in 1967 as a national arts organization to train filmmakers and preserve America's vanishing film heritage. The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities recommended creating AFI as a nonprofit "to enrich and nurture the art of film in America" with initial funding from the NEA, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Ford Foundation.
"We will create an American Film Institute, bringing together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators and young men and women who wish to pursue the 20th century art form as their life's work," said President Lyndon B. Johnson upon signing the legislation that created AFI.
AFI's original 22-member Board of Trustees included Chair Gregory Peck and Vice Chair Sidney Poitier as well as Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Jack Valenti and other representatives from the arts and academia.
Under the leadership of AFI's founding director, George Stevens, Jr., the Institute established a training program for filmmakers known as the Center for Advanced Film Studies, where the first class included Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Paul Schrader. A repertory film exhibition program at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the AFI Catalog of Feature Films — the definitive source for American film history — were also created in the first five years.
The AFI Life Achievement Award, recognized as the highest honor for a career in film, held its first tribute in 1973. Honorees over the past years have included John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Billy Wilder, Sidney Poitier, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, George Lucas and Al Pacino.