Player Profile -- Reel challenge: O'Connor aims to elevate AFI brand

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In an ocean of powerful entertainment brands, American Film Institute-a tiny name among giants-now wants to make its mark with consumers.

The 30-year-old Los Angeles nonprofit organization, which promotes film history though a variety of programs and runs a school for budding filmmakers, has hired its first chief marketing and communications executive, Cory O'Connor.

The 40-something Mr. O'Connor comes to AFI with major entertainment marketing experience from his time at the Disney Channel, where he was senior VP-synergy of programming and communications. He considers this a perfect background-especially coming from one of pre-eminent entertainment marketers.

"After nine years at Walt Disney, you learn lot about branding, marketing and positioning," he said.

AFI executives, including Mr. O'Connor, said its goal is to further film history and preservation-not exactly top-of-mind among consumers hungry for the latest in entertainment. "That's one of the challenges I have to do deal with, as opposed to my friends in the for-profit world," Mr. O'Connor said.

The good news is the AFI brand name gained ground associating its name with film history over the last few years through its TV specials. On June 12, it aired its fourth in a series of "AFI's 100 years ..." on CBS. The latest one, "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Thrills," documented the most thrilling movies of all time. Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" was tops. The institute has also aired "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Movies," "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Stars," and "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Laughs."

In recent years, AFI has aligned with corporate sponsors through its TV shows and other events. Many of those companies, which include American Express Co., General Motors Corp., Sony Corp. of America, Apple Computer and Blockbuster Video, have executives who sit on AFI's board of trustees. They include: Tony Ponturo, VP-corporate media and sports marketing at Anheuser-Busch; Phil Guarascio, ex-marketing executive at General Motors; John Antioco, chairman-CEO of Viacom's Blockbuster Video; Howard Stringer, chairman-CEO, Sony Corp. of America, and Roger Enrico, vice chairman of the board of PepsiCo.

"That why we hired Cory," said Jean Picker Firstenberg, director-CEO of AFI, "to convert some of the corporate supporters into business."

Mr. O'Connor is charged with finding ways for the nonprofit to partner with corporations, be it screenings of films, TV shows or sponsorships.

Ms. Firstenberg believes one of Mr. O'Connor's goals will be to stir more film discussion in society-just like that of TV shows. "We want to take film out of the box-office report and to put it in the context of the water-cooler phenomenon, where everyone is talking about what their favorite movie is."

Another challenge for Mr. O'Connor is to invest in research to determine where the AFI brand name is the strongest. For the recent "100 years ..." show earlier this month, the entire program earned a Nielsen 6.2 rating/11 share. Its adults 18-49 demographic earned a 3.2/10, which tied ABC for the evening.

"I'm seeing that we have appeal across all demographics," Mr. O'Connor said.

"But I'm just getting into all this now," he said. "I fully intend to understand who the customer is, who the audience is and what the AFI brand means to people."

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