American Film Institute's Jean Firstenberg; From would-be sports announcer to president
Washington — The silverware crashed, the china and glasses rattled around the dinner table when Jean Firstenberg told here astonished family and friends what she intended to do with her life.
On the Richter scale of their lives, it was about 4.7 -- not a major earthquake, but a tremor that certainly shook them.
Jean Firstenberg, daughter of Eugene Picker, former president of Loew's movie theaters, and sister of David Picker, vice-president of Lorimar Films, had decided to become director of the American Film Institute. At the time she was an executive at the Markle Foundation, which specializes in the mass media, but she had never produced or directed a feature film, had never been involved with a Hollywood studio.In Tinseltown, she was Jean Who? In addition, she was a woman in a field traditionally run by men.
When the shock subsided, Mrs. Firstenberg began going after her goal. The Film Institute didn't contact her; she contacted it. For two months in a series of interviews she met with all the members of the selection committee and the board -- including Hollywood superstars like the chairman of the AFI board, Charlton Heston. Still, she was considered an underdog in a field that included 60 candidates. Up until the last minute she was really fighting for it.
"When she wants something she really goes after it and usually gets it," says her son, Douglas, who has just finished his sophomore year at Duke University. "And the best example of that is her getting the job at AFI."
The American Film Institute is the privately and puclicly financed channel of the American film community. It was established in 1967 "to preserve the heritage and advance the art of film in America." Through offices in Washington and Los Angeles, it furthers film education, preservation, research, and publication (institute members receive its monthly American Film Magazine). It also runs the Center for Advanced Film Studies in Beverly Hills.
Mrs. Firstenberg steps into the shoes of a man who is a celebrity in his own right, George Stevens Jr., a film executive, New Frontiersman, producer, and Emmy Award-winning TV producer, who has been director of the AFI since its founding 13 years ago and has been responsible for its resounding success. Mr. Stevens, whose father directed such classics as "Shane" and "Giant," has been involved in films since he could toddle. A talk with him is full of firsthand stories about the famous names of Hollywood.
At the time of Mrs. Firstenberg's appointment Stevens explained that the institute was looking for someone with experience in "three essential areas: a person who could relate to Washington and the political world, educators and independent filmmakers -- they're an important constituency -- and the film and TV industry.
Critics of the AFI have suggested that despite its success it has been too Hollywood- and commercially-oriented, neglecting the independent film communities across the country. AFI is largely privately funded but receives a quarter of its $8 million annual budget from the National Endowment for the Arts , which, like the Endowment for the Humanities, has recently focused on a more populist, regional, grassroots approach to culture, away from what some in government view as an "elitist" approach. Mrs. Firstenberg, on taking over as director, said the institute's objective should be "to reach into the entire country, to interact with the regional media arts centers and filmmakers."
Mrs. Firstenberg has moved the director's office away from the dizzying, wall-less balcony under the roof used by Mr. Stevens to a large glass-walled room off to the right in the AFI headquarters here, overlooking the palisades of white marble at the Kennedy Center. She is a moderately tall woman with a warm, burnished smile. The color is all in her hair and eyes and skin. She is deeply tanned, with reddish- brown hair in a pageboy and dark brown eyes. Otherwise, the day we talk, she is monochromatic: white-on-white striped blouse, pale gray slubbed silk skirt, pale grayish-beige crocheted vest, gold earrings, and chain necklaces set with semiprecious stones. Around her neck she wears a gold choker with a diamond the size of a dime. It was a gift from her grandmother. Her voice is low, throaty, Manhattan with a southern California overlay.
She is talking about how her directorship will be different from Stevens's: "I see myself as a bridge builder, because I'm assuming that role. . . . I think everybody has a different sense of his own priorities and maybe even abilities. I think that George had the hardest job trying to establish this place. I think building anything from the beginning takes a remarkable talent. And I think I'm kind of fortunate that the institution is in place, and that it has done as remarkably well as it has in the past 12 years.
"I think what I will try to do is build on that foundation and extend the resources of the institute into the field. I'm really interested in finding ways to build links to filmmakers around the country, to bring into our family in a more intimate way the independent filmmakers, the art centers, the museum people, the university community, to try and see if there are services and programs that might help them and provide for them if they want. But I think that the Hollywood link is really essential. I think that interaction between the field and the world that is producing is an important connection, if I can help bridge it."
Certainly she has connections to both worlds, and her own career as a communicator may help her to connect with the disparate areas the AFI embraces.
She grew up in New York City in a film family, where the daily rushes were discussed around the dinner table as casually as the roast.
"Movies were just a way of life. We talked about them every night. . . . We'd say, What did you do today? And my father would have seen, if not one, two or three films. I always thought he didn't work."
And then we would get to see them when they played in his theaters, because we would drive around to the different boroughs and we would see 10 minutes of the film at the first theater in the Bronx, and by the end of the afternoon . . . . I would always say, 'But I have to see the end of it!' And of course it was always a double bill, so there was a long wait at the end."
Her field has always been communications, from the day she graduated summa cum laude from Boston University's School of Public Relations and Communications. When, 20 years ago, she found the world wasn't ready yet for the first woman sports announcer, which she wanted to be, she became assistant to the president of WMGM-AM in New York. Then she worked for the Democratic National Committee (1964), organized US participation in the 1965 Moscow Film Festival, later became assistant producer of public affairs television programs on WRC-TV in Washington, and in 1968 joined the J. Walter Thompson Advertising. There she worked until 1972 on the relationship between TV programming and advertising revenues.
When the Firstenbergs moved to Princeton, N.J., that year, she joined Princeton University's communications office, later becoming its director. Three years ago she joined the Markle Foundation to direct media projects it fostered and funded. Among them were workshops for TV critics, studies of the cultural history of television, a program for distributing independent short subjects, and a directing workshop for women, an AFI program that has included talents like Joanne Woodward, Dyan Cannon, Anne Bancroft, and Maya Angelou.
On paper, that all clicks along in an orderly, progressive way, like the resume of any upwardly mobile executive, man or woman. But, as Mrs. Firstenberg's close friend Mrs. Steven Roberts explains, Jean Firstenberg's career had to be wedded into an already full-time life as wife and mother. "Cokie" Roberts, who is a reporter at National Public Radio, is the wife of a New York Times reporter, Steven Roberts.
Mrs. Roberts says, "She's a very caring, good friend, daughter, mother, who has always walked that tightrope, that job-family tightrope. Now it's easier."
The Firstenberg children are now fairly well grown up. Debra, 21, is graduating from Princeton and has a Fulbright for study at the London School of Economics, and Douglas, 19, is majoring in public-policy studies at Duke. Mrs. Firstenberg is now divorced from Paul Firstenberg, executive vice-president of the Children's Television Workshop. Mrs. Roberts, the daughter of US Rep. Corinne (Lindy) Boggs (D) of Louisiana, remembers that Mrs. Firstenberg's first involvement in politics began as a volunteer. "She ran a couple of inaugural balls the years of Johnson's inauguration. That sounds flighty, feminine, and socialite, but it was a heavy political job, bringing all those competing forces together happily." Out of that came other jobs and experiences (they worked together in film production in Washington), Mrs. Roberts says, which makes her "the perfect person for this job. She knows about both film and politics. Not too many people fill that bill."
There is this disconcerting thing about Jean Firstenberg. She takes notes on you as you take notes on her in an interview. Part of it is that taste for organization -- going over the main points on paper -- but the other part is that she is a quick study who is till learning. She jots down quotations, phrases she likes, ideas she wants to explore. In a sense, she disarms the interviewer, which may be part of her executive talent. There is nothing of the clinging vine about her, but her warmth and interest involve others, and draw them into sharing ideas with her.
Have you seen any made-for-TV movies, she'll ask, that are especially good? She is interested in what she calls "circles of interaction" involving film, TV, audiences, critics.
"Movies made for TV are doing in some ways more daring kinds of subject matter than films are. . . . You know that there are 100 made-for-TV movies produced by the three net-works each year and they range from $1 1/2 million to do an awful lot of product, and an opportunity to do an awful lot of interesting work. In some ways you could almost call it experimental work, because you're not spending $30 million [what some films cost], so therefore you can try to do things that you couldn't necessarily do when the stakes are a lot higher."
She talks of a "sensitive and remarkably moving" TV movie she had seen the previous night. "I think the problem is that a program like that is seen once, then it has a rerun. Maybe 30 million people saw it once. But how much is written about it? It doesn't get the ink that a theatrical release would get. And it doesn't get time for people to think about whether they want to see something like that. . . ."
As she talks, two clocks are whirring away in her handsome, contemporary office. One of them is a color clock -- one of a pair of clocks that change in a rainbow of colors as the time changes. Her ex-husband gave her one for her apartment, one for her office. "I like timepieces," she explains. "I have two clocks in this office, clocks everywhere. I think it probably stems from insecurity. I like to know what time it is." At home, her family says, she has a collection of clocks, from antique to modern.
She sits in a black leather chair at the round oak table which gives a homey look to her otherwise sleek office, with its scarlet rug, beige walls, dark blue couch, and film posters. "I'm not very good at your games," she says, when asked about her favorite things. But she answers: "I like the Brooklyn Dodgers, I like winning at tennis; of course it never happens. . . . I like sailing. I like to eat too much. I have become a vegetarian, it was three or four years ago. I read everything I can about media. And that's really all I read. I've become single-minded. I really love sports, all sports."
Mrs. Firstenberg is somewhat more reflective when she talks about whether there was any conflict between her marriange and family and her work. "Well, I'm divorced," she says with a level look. "I would say that there are always conflicts when you're trying to do too many things. My husband was very supportive of my working, and that is the only way you can have a two-career family." She says her children were not happy that she worked, but attributes that to her being a bit ahead of the times.
"We did not live in an environment in which other mothers workd. . . . I must say that my children have grown up and matured as I have matured, and I feel that they have allowed me to do really what I wanted to do. So sometimes when you have a problem in the beginning, it works out."
So after all the years of slogging quietly away, building a career slowly, as the demands of her other life would allow, Jean Firstenberg has now reached a pinnacle. She is one of the most powerful women, suddenly, in a film world where women are generally more decorative than powerful. She makes $62,500 a year. She stands in the spotlight on the stage at Kennedy Center, as she did a couple of months ago, and welcomes a couple of thousand black-tie partygoers to an AFI benefit premiere of the film "Being There." It is only when she fluffs the title of the film -- "Being Here," she said -- that you knew she still had the wobbles a little over her new job.
Recently, another woman, Sherry Lansing, startled the industry by becoming the first female head of a film studio -- 20th Century-fox. Mrs. Firstenberg is asked whether Miss Lansing is a fluke, or whether she thinks there will be more of a sharing of the money and power at the top of the film industry.
"I think that the film industry will probably mirror other industries and there will probably be more and more women in board rooms and women in CEO," she says.
"Chief executive offices. Whether or not the sense of sharing or 50-50 will ever come to pass, I think that will take several decades, more moons, but I don't think it's a passing fancy. I think it will develop continuously. . . ." She calls Miss Lansing's appointment "major," along with Jane Cahill Pfeiffer's appointment as chairman of the NBC board. She also applauds Joan Ganz Cooney's accomplishments in creating the Children's Television Workshop. "Think of what that woman was able to do."
What about Jean Firstenberg? Would she ever like to be head of a studio? Again, that warm, disarming smile.
"I haven't the skills to be head of a studio. I come at it from a different perspective. I really come at it from someone who is interested in what is being done. I see myself as an advocate for the filmmakers. I see myself representing filmmakers around this country and telling them and others that the moving image is an art form and it is a means of communication, and one of the most important and powerful. Let's respect it, let's recognize that, let's talk about it so that we put it in a context. I really am a bridge builder and a talker and someone who cares about what other people are doing. So that [ heading a studio] won't be my next step."
Her brother David Picker, (whose company produced "Being There,") talks candidly about his sister's new job.
"It wasn't a factor that she was a motion picture brat," he says. "when she was elected director, half my friends didn't realize she was a family member. . . . She's not known in Hollywood, but they're impressed with her qualifications. And when they know her, they'll be impressed with her."m
Mr. Picker says that despite growing up in a movie family, his sister didn't think in terms of film as a career.
"She was always someone committed to communications. That [her film background] was the icing on the cake, the gravy on the roast, as background, but it's always been communications with her."