AFI & the Digital World - Excerpt from new book, 'Becoming AFI'
Tuesday, October 17, 2017 at 10:56 AM
Nick DeMartino in 'Becoming AFI', American Film Institute, Hollywood, Internet, James Hindman, Jean Picker Firstenberg, Media, Personal, books, history, innovation, movies, technology, television

This post is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book "Becoming AFI: 50 Years of the American Film Institute" by Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman (Santa Monica Press), which I authored. Jean Picker Firstenberg, who was President and CEO of the AFI from 1980 to 2007, will be featured October 26th at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, in conversation with former AFI trustee--and ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith. More information on the event, including how to buy tickets, can be found here.



It’s difficult to recall a world before the Internet, even for those of us who were there when it started. Just as AFI was setting out on its own digital journey, the Internet emerged from its academic and technical cocoon to take flight as a new and all-pervading data net- work that would soon transform all aspects of culture and business. In its infancy, the Internet was simply a marvel—a miraculous new utility that fostered community and created much beauty, rather than the corporate battleground it would become.

My Internet life started with AppleLink, a private email ser- vice for companies doing business with Apple. Logging on with a squawky dial-up modem, I felt like a member of a secret society of digital somebodies at a time when just having an email address seemed cool. Soon, we built AFI’s first campus email network.

Some in Hollywood heard about the World Wide Web—the graphical component of the Internet—at an “Information Super- highway Summit” in January 1994, organized by Rich Frank, an AFI trustee from Disney, who also chaired the television academy. (Rich Frank’s role on the AFI board, serving almost continuously since 1991, has been extraordinary. His Frank Family Wines have been served at many Life Achievement Award dinners, and he con- tinues to chair the TV jury for the AFI AWARDS every year.) Ev- eryone was there: Hollywood moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch, as well as FCC chairman Reed Hun- dt and Vice President Al Gore, who would subsequently overstate his role in the invention of the Internet.

AFI’s first glimpse of the World Wide Web came a few months later during a campus tribute at AFI to Wired, the magazine that gave voice to “digital lifestyle” before anyone even knew what that was. After entertaining the audience with the magazine’s ground- breaking graphics and McLuhanesque content, Wired founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe blew everyone’s minds with a sneak preview of the web’s first commercial magazine, HotWired, which they were preparing to launch in a few months. Projected onto AFI’s movie screen using the Mosaic web browser, HotWired whipped us from one page to another—from words to images to video and back again—with a simple click of a mouse. This was something completely new, a revolutionary way of publishing, communicating, and connecting, and I knew that AFI had to be part of it.

I spent weeks learning to write HTML in order to launch a primitive website that used a discarded Mac as a server. It sure was ugly—a fact that helped me make a case for the AFI to hire a real web designer.


AFI Online debuted on October 10, 1995, as part of the Web’s ex- ploding growth—from 600 sites at the beginning of 1994 to over 100,000 sites by the end of 1995. Our Web address was the inauspicious Others had already grabbed snappier URLs like,, and ( was the American Fertilizer Institute, giving rise to a one-liner: “AFI, another kind of bullshit.”) In 2002, AFI would eventually purchase the domain name and for our screen education program for a well-spent $25,000.

Our first website featured various AFI programs, which we dubbed the “virtual AFI.” We even offered a virtual campus tour using the new QuickTime VR software. The most original aspect of the site was “CineMedia,” a directory of links to thousands of other websites in the field of film, television, and media, developed by UCLA film studies PhD Dan Harries, who became the first director of AFI Online Media, a web unit that became known for its creativity and inventiveness.

Dan and his staff, including Todd Hughes and Stephanie Nye, eagerly experimented with new web technologies, especially video. AFI Online Cinema premiered in January 1997 as the first website in the world to stream classic Hollywood films, beginning with Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Rink, using software from Israeli startup VDONet. More than 100,000 viewers from around the world watched The Rink during its first month on the web, earning AFI significant international press attention. AFI Online Cinema continued with more Hollywood silent films, well-suited for the herky-jerky look of early web video transmitted using slow dial-up connections.

The team also designed elaborate multimedia presentations devoted to cinema icons like Martin Scorsese, Edith Head, Shir- ley Temple, James Stewart, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, using AFI’s collections of photos, videos, physical artifacts, and publications like American Film magazine. We also began to offer selections from AFI’s library of short films, which later became valuable as the web became commercialized.


AFI’s 100 Years...100 Movies was a three-hour special that aired on CBS in 1998 and celebrated the greatest American films with short clips of films and celebrity interviews—perfect for AFI Online, providing we could raise a budget and secure usage rights. FasTV, a web video startup owned by Khaled Al Nehayan, crown prince of Dubai, covered our costs and provided technology. AFI trustee and Warner Bros. studio chief Bob Daly helped with the rights; Firstenberg and I were able to convince him that our site was pira- cy-proof, because we were using streaming technology rather than downloads. We launched a companion website for the CBS pro- gram featuring thirty-four Warner Bros.-licensed clips—a third of the total—along with a wealth of other materials about all 100 of the movies.

A light bulb went on: the web had the potential for AFI to interconnect the assets it had produced over the course of three decades. We had the data, the photos, the video clips, and the con- text. With the will and some money, AFI could create the world’s greatest movie website. (Ah, if it had only been so!) AFI’s early embrace of the web lent depth to our partnership strategy and credibility with companies who were powering the growth of this powerful new medium—companies like Intel Corporation.

The Digital Sandbox


Within twenty years of its founding in 1968, Intel had become the largest corporation in the world, as measured by market cap- italization. By the mid-’90s, Intel provided the microprocessor chips—the computing brains—that ran most of the world’s personal computers and servers. Intel was, indeed, inside, as its tagline cleverly asserted. Intel achieved dominance through its willingness to radically transform itself at the first sign of new competitive or technological threats.

The Internet presented such a threat, and a new strategic objec- tive. Intel reasoned that it could sell more chips when media, espe- cially video, was distributed online. Video required an expansion of Internet distribution capacity—so-called “broadband.” Intel need- ed Hollywood to create demand for this broadband video distribu- tion. Intel created a $750 million Content Group, headed by Ron Whittier, to invest in companies that accelerated the delivery and consumption of media (audio, video, and games) on the Internet. Intel also launched its Hollywood charm offensive from a lavish new facility located at the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills.

CAA agent and longtime AFI friend John Ptak arranged for us to meet with Intel executives. Intel quickly agreed to sponsor a live webcast from the AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to Clint Eastwood. A few months later, Intel donated a new com- puter lab to AFI worth $1 million. But there was more to come. After months of working through the Intel hierarchy of managers and executives, AFI and Intel reached a three-year $1.5 million partnership deal in the fall of 1997. The most important item in the contract was “an AFI-Intel production workshop,” which would become perhaps the signature achievement of AFI’s emerging technology strategy.


Interactive television arrived with a splash in 1977 with the launch of QUBE, an elaborate cable system offering new features such   as pay-per-view, on-demand movies, special-interest networks, and interactivity. Innovation notwithstanding, QUBE lost a fortune for its owner Warner Cable, which began to phase out the system in 1982. A new round of interactive TV trials in the ’90s also failed to find customers or profits, tainting the very term with the stench of failure. Where cable saw defeat, the computer industry saw oppor- tunity. To support web-based technology for interactive TV, Intel and Microsoft organized the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum, which included Intel, Microsoft, Samsung, Warner Bros., Sony, Disney, PBS, CNN, Cable Labs, Direct TV, and NBC. This commitment to web-based interactivity explains how an “AFI-Intel production workshop” morphed into the AFI-Intel Enhanced Television Workshop, which launched in 1998.

How might such a thing work? From a creative standpoint, it was important to adopt the “Learn by doing; study with the Masters” mantra that defines AFI’s Conservatory program and Directing Workshop for Women. From a business standpoint, it was crucial that costs be borne by sponsors rather than customers, so that    we could recruit the best possible participants instead of running something like a retail business, as we had with our Apple program. These ideas got a trial run with the California Digital Arts Workshop, which provided a dozen fine artists with the chance to spend an intensive week producing their own original digital projects under the supervision of AFI mentors. Every evening, after spending all day on their projects, the artists attended public events featuring some of the world’s best digital artists and web innovators.


We employed a similar program model to launch the AFI-Intel En- hanced TV Workshop in 1998. Participants experienced a week- long, intensive production-based workshop with support from digital mentors. Participation was restricted to producers affiliated with TV networks who had permission to experiment with an existing TV property.

For the venture to succeed, we needed to recruit “name” net- works. Initially, we talked about the excitement of interactivity and a brand new audience of active viewers, to which some re- plied, “Why bother?” Soon, we started calling it the “why-both- er?” workshop. We selected eight participants, including producers from Fox, ABC, A&E, and E! Entertainment. To help them in the workshop, we recruited a strong roster of mentors. Entrepreneur Ken Locker led the mentor group that included folks from NBC, AOL, Warner Bros., and Viacom; ad agencies RGA, Digital Planet/ IXL, Verso Studios, Pittard, and Sullivan; startups Protozoa, Oz In- teractive, Inscape, Digital Evolution, Hyperbole Studios, LaFong, Tag Media, Intertainer, Interactive Drama, and Creative Light; and the president of the TV academy, Meryl Marshall.

The disciplines practiced by this diverse group of professionals allowed AFI to create a dynamic engagement experience that might, on any given day, involve such processes as open-design thinking, brainstorming, technology analysis, product position- ing, and branding. It was a creative sandbox for participants and mentors alike. The biggest problem was the workshop’s compressed schedule; it was too brief for anyone to produce much more than a concept presentation.

The program became decidedly more effective during the second year, mainly because we were able to hire a year-round staff. Heading up the team was Anna Marie Piersimoni, who had performed so well on Cinetex. Piersimoni ran the workshop from 1999 to 2001. Her restructured program devoted a full six months to the design and production of projects, with weekly phone or in-person meetings. During this period, we attracted higher profile networks, established a must-attend aura around the program’s showcase events, and survived the conclusion of Intel’s three-year deal by finding new sponsors.

The program delivered value to each stakeholder, a virtuous circle built on mutual support and incentives. Networks got a top-notch prototype customized for one of their shows and a team of mentors to build it. Mentors got access to big-brand networks and a rare cross-industry collaboration with peers. Sponsors connected their products to the best and the brightest from old and new me- dia alike, finding developers they could work with. Year after year, people cycled from one role to another within the program, con- tributing and receiving expertise and pro bono work, networking with new people, and having fun.

For the true believers, the ones I called “interactivists,” the greatest incentive was probably the chance to make a difference. “The most exciting part for me is the opportunity to participate  in the invention of the future,” said one mentor. “I love the new storytelling formats that are being invented, new ways of involving the viewer,” added another. “Interactive TV is driven by the human desire to innovate and to become better,” said another.


The program’s second director was Marcia Zellers, who ran the lab from mid-2001 to fall 2006. An early interactive producer for Warner Bros. Online and MTV, Zellers possessed a finely tuned understanding of commercial media and the people these companies employed. She presided over the workshop at a time of explosive growth in the industry, including the build-out of broadband distribution networks and greater interactive experimentation by the mainstream networks. A new peer group was formed at the Television Academy to capture this interest in interactive media.

A review of the lab’s projects during this period reveals a few trends. We attracted a remarkable diversity of genres and program types to the program, including news, kidvid, sitcoms, documen- tary, awards telecasts, movies, reality series, music programming, games, e-commerce, advertorials, sports, science, drama, education, and finance. We attracted our most diverse set of networks, includ- ing PBS, TV Land, USA, Turner Classic Movies, Food Network, SciFi Channel, ABC, Bloomberg, Disney Channel, Washington Redskins, Nickelodeon, MTV, Showtime, Scripps, National Geographic, Telemundo, History Channel, Reuters, and World Wrestling Entertainment. Some of the projects, even those initiated by television networks, ran entirely on non-TV platforms like cellular phones (before they were “smart”) and broadband (reaching twenty percent of U.S. homes by 2005).


The nomenclature of “enhanced TV” and “interactive TV” began feeling outdated and downright inaccurate. We wanted to find a more appropriate brand for a program that was supposed to be ahead of the pack, not behind it.

So, in 2003, we introduced the world to the AFI Digital Content Lab (DCL), a brand that represented the breadth of what we were trying to do: make digital content a true medium unto itself. The program expanded AFI’s commitment to collaboration for a new era, requiring the contributions of technologists, coders, de- signers, and marketers, as well as artists and storytellers. We built a digital sandbox for the emerging digital media ecosystem.

Internet and interactive TV pioneer Suzanne Stefanac took over as DCL director from October 2006 until March 2010, when the program ended, a casualty of the global financial crisis. She expanded the program to make web-native video ventures as welcome in the lab as broadcast and cable networks. Her focus in the lab during this period reflected both the opportunities and the threats in the consumer media market, from time-shifting devices to social media networks, to video brands like YouTube and Netflix, to the popularity of casual gaming.

Bravo, for example, created a new advertising delivery system designed for viewers using DVRs. PBS created a fundraising app that allowed donors to skip pledge pitches. AOL built a live video switching app within its Instant Messenger platform. NBC’s Law and Order and the Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 each created com- panion games on non-broadcast platforms. HBO collaborated with emerging YouTube stars to produce an original, web-only pilot.  A rock concert promoter created an app that rewarded fans for green behavior with perks from their favorite performers. Hollywood talent like David Lynch (class of 1970), Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kit Carson created products to connect fans to their creative and philanthropic interests. Most of the innovations explored in these and other projects at the DCL would show up in commercial products in years to come.


“AFI has done groundbreaking work training the filmmakers of tomorrow, and the recent efforts through the AFI Digital Content Lab are no exception. Setting a standard for innovation in digital media, AFI has brought together the storytellers of the future and technology innovators to explore new forms of how to tell a story in the twenty-first century. It is through this program and all that AFI does for fans and moviemakers alike that they ensure an important legacy for generations to come.” 

—TODD WAGNER, entrepreneur and AFI trustee (2003–2012, 2013–present)




What was the Digital Content Lab’s impact on the world, on AFI, and on the future? How do we measure its success? Consider the numbers: ninety-five productions and forty events over a twelve-year period; more than 1,000 professional mentors, participants and presenters; and fifteen sponsors providing nearly $5 million. Also consider the recognition: ranked among the top leaders in digital media and most influential in broadband by the Los Angeles Business Journal; third-ranked digital influencer on a list of fifty by The Hollywood Reporter; developed the project that won the first interactive Emmy in 2004; awarded the first TV of Tomor- row industry award; and awarded the “Digerati Award” by the TV academy’s interactive arm, in recognition of the AFI’s pioneering contributions to the interactive media industry (the only nonprofit entity on the list).

Consider the benefits: the Digital Content Lab provided a remarkable engine for funding, generating overhead revenue, and attracting new prospects to support other AFI programs. The blue- chip list of corporate partners includes Intel (a partner for three years), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (nine years), Microsoft (five years), Adobe (three years), IBM, AOL, AT&T (ongoing), Liberate, and HP (multiple years).

It was a rich experience for most of us involved, largely because of the community we built. The unique circumstances that facilitated these successes won’t come again. But while it lasted, AFI influenced the evolution of both technology and television and, in so doing, cemented its reputation as a leading player in digital media. 


“It’s a small industry but the collaborative spirit at AFI has given a certain spirit to the business overall. I’ve always liked the phrase, ‘Leave your guns at the door.’ That’s been the value and one of the underlying directives of the lab. It’s still a new business, and a new industry that’s out there. And what AFI has done has really affected that, and created a common sensibility for moving forward.”

—DALE HERIGSTAD, award-winning graphics designer and AFI Digital Content Lab mentor





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