“No other source of information is as complete and accurate, and no other source is produced with the scrupulous level of attention to scholarship and research as the AFI Catalog.” – Martin Scorsese
AFI was established on September 29, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Arts and Humanities Bill into law with the following proclamation: “In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalog. Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision which guides us as a Nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The Arts and Humanities Bill, which included the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, compelled AFI to build a new “catalog” of feature films that would protect cultural history from becoming a “short footnote,” in Johnson’s words, or from disappearing entirely, as many films had already. At that time, there was no established film codex of the past, and preservation was becoming a critical issue.
In 1967, AFI officially opened its doors and began documenting the first 100 years of American filmmaking with the AFI Catalog of Feature Films. It was the first-ever scholarly listing of American films, with academically vetted information about the existence, availability and sources of motion pictures already produced, spanning the entirety of the art form since 1893.
From 1968 to 1971, AFI researched the 1920s decade of film production (1921-1930). Records for every American feature film released during this time were published by the University of California Press in 1971 as encyclopedic volumes.
The 1920s AFI Catalog was embraced by academics as the foundation of film preservation and cultural heritage. Eminent historian and author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., stated it was: “Not only a triumph of exact scholarship. It is also endlessly absorbing as an extension into cultural history and national memory.”
The 1920s volumes were followed five years later by the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-1970. The next installment was published in 1988 and covered films released between 1911-1920. From that time forward, the remaining decades were documented with new guidelines. Film prints were viewed whenever possible to ensure the accuracy of the Synopsis and Onscreen Credits. In addition, historical newspaper and trade sources, published at the time in which the film was being made, were researched to create a History of the production, from development through release. All citations are listed in Bibliographic Sources.
Just over 20 years after publication of the first AFI Catalog, President Johnson’s mandate was affirmed in the “Report of the Librarian of Congress, Film Preservation 1993: A Study of the Current State of American Film Preservation,” which stated: “The AFI Catalog provides a statistical population against which film survival rates can be reliably calculated.”
In 1999, after the final volume was printed, the AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-1950 became one of only two film books selected as “Book of the Year” by the Los Angeles Times to date. Reviewer Kenneth Turan called it: “Nothing less than an authoritative Oxford English Dictionary of American Film” and an “irreplaceable contribution.”
The AFI Catalog was migrated to an online database at AFI.com in 2003, where it has remained the cornerstone of academic film research.
In celebration of AFI’s 50th Anniversary in 2017, the AFI Catalog database was preserved, enhanced and redesigned with robust, user-friendly search capabilities to promote film education and appreciation worldwide. In addition, unique treasures from AFI productions and archives were made accessible for the first time as AFI Catalog Premier Records. The database includes the AFI Catalog of Feature Films First 100 Years Project (1893-1993), which has nearly 54,000 academic records, as well as approximately 9,000 films released after 1993 that are documented with basic records.
Enhancements to AFI Catalog records are ongoing. AFI Researchers are currently mining historical and academic resources to add further documentation to films released 1910-1930. The aggregation of extensive information about silent films is part of AFI’s initiative to study female pioneers in the “Women They Talk About” project. With generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The David and Lura Lovell Foundation, AFI will produce unprecedented research tools to discover and quantify the extensive contributions of women in the first century of American filmmaking. The official launch of “Women They Talk About” in 2022 will give AFI Catalog users new opportunities to bring female filmmakers into the vernacular through database queries, data visualizations and educational curriculum.
Motion pictures remain one of the most popular mediums in which individuals from all walks of life join together with a common passion for seeing our stories come to life in what President Johnson called an “inner vision.” With extensive scholarly research compiled over the past fifty years, and an updated technological platform for enhancements in the future, the AFI Catalog database provides a uniquely robust, dynamic portal into film’s rich documentation of cultural history and personal narratives.