Museum shuts down film department

Film production in Los Angeles County is reportedly down by as much as 50%, the AFI Film Festival will be trying a Hail Mary of charging no admission to jumpstart attendance at its November event, and now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has announced it’s shutting down its film department, thereby terminating its longstanding program of specialized weekend film screenings, along with Tuesday matinees.

Doesn’t Los Angeles want to be the world’s movie capital any longer?

Any cutbacks, downsizing or shop closings these days are easily blamed on the economy. But such an explanation just seems too convenient where LACMA’s film screenings are concerned. LACMA director Michael Govan claims that the film department has lost about $1 million over the past decade, but presumably whatever “losses” were incurred from 1999-2007 were comfortably absorbed by the museum’s overall operating budget, as were, no doubt, many of LACMA’s other exhibitions and programs. I’m told the film program ran at a deficit of $70,000 last year, which is chicken feed for such an institution.

Is it worth closing down the entire film operation just for that? Hardly. It seems like just an excuse to eliminate an activity in which the current museum administration must not be very interested. LACMA could easily continue showing films if it really wanted to, or at least keep the program going until it works out whatever adjustments Govan and his team want to make.

Along with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which shows films all the time and can boast of its own formidable collection of thousands of titles, LACMA is the only major city art museum to have maintained a film program on an ongoing basis over the years. Its 600-seat Leo S. Bing Theater is an excellent venue, and the weekly Tuesday matinees offer a welcome opportunity for older residents of the Fairfax district to enjoy vintage Hollywood fare.

First under the late Ron Haver and for the past 13 years under Ian Birnie, LACMA programming has been smart, useful and reliable, seemingly catering to a good cross-section of the public. It’s also low-key, without glitz or trendiness. It’s also had no promotion, which, if the hierarchy were truly concerned about spiking revenues, it could have done something about. Once in a great while, the film series connected to Hollywood in a meaningful way — I have wonderful memories of hosting an onstage interview with Walter Mirisch before a packed house at the kick-off of a Mirisch brothers series a few years ago, with Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews among the many in attendance — and occasionally some special guests affiliated with specific films would come to speak. When I did some guest programming there after Haver’s death, Angie Dickinson and Richard Fleischer were nice enough to come along with films of theirs I’d scheduled, and audiences always turned out for these special appearances.

A generation ago, Los Angeles had an abundance of revival houses and institutions devoted to showing older, foreign and specialized fare: the Nuart, Fox Venice, Sherman, New Beverly, Vagabond, UCLA Film Archives, frequently USC, the Tiffany on the Strip and others that came and went. The New Beverly, the only commercial theater still in the frequent-change double-bill business, is trying to hang on, UCLA has fancy digs now at the Hammer, and the American Cinematheque keeps working on the formulas that will keep two venues, the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Aero in Santa Monica, operating.

But LACMA has always had the most central location and a certain cachet as a high art venue that set it apart. My sense is that, for whatever reasons, LACMA has taken the easy road of using meager economic reasons to justify closing down a department that has been cherished by many people over many years, when it could have bucked the trend and proudly, defiantly kept it going if it really wanted to, evolving the programming to its taste if desired.

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