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LA County Museum of Art Launches Film Independent Series, Backed by NY Times UPDATED

by Anne Thompson
April 6, 2011 8:14 AM
13 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is partnering with L.A.'s Film Independent on a new film series, sponsored by the New York Times, starting in September. And they are starting the search for a new film curator to run that screening program. Together. "We're helping to hire that person," says Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson. "Why wouldn't we know that community? We're offering our connection to the film community and programmers and our ability to assemble a team to oversee the program at LACMA. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Under new museum director Michael Govan, LACMA's film program has been under duress and was saved from suspension in October 2008 by an outcry from the film community, including director Martin Scorsese, who wrote to Govan:

“I find it profoundly disheartening to know that a vital outlet for the exhibition of what was once known as ‘repertory cinema’ has been cut off in L.A. of all places, the center of film production and the land of the movie-making itself."

The museum's film program was saved by grants from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV. For the past two years, LACMA film department consulting curator Ian Birney has limped along as lame duck head of the museum's film program. Revenues from LACMA's new film club, which charges extra to members, do not seem to have benefited the film department's bottom line: its budget has been curtailed in the last year. As of this fall, Birnie is out of a job, and one of the world's major museums (with some 30 curators covering everything from photography, fashion and sculpture to Korean art) is farming out its film programming to indie film organization Film Independent, which mounts the annual Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is run by producer Rebecca Yeldham and Newsweek critic David Ansen. According to Film Independent chief Dawn Hudson (pictured), while all of her organization's resources will be brought to bear on the new film program, their first order of business is finding a new screening series curator, to be based at LACMA. She adds: "Michael is not letting go. It's merging two institutions. He's asking, 'How can I get the film community involved in this program?'"

On the phone from London, after a trip to the Cinematheque Francaise to research Stanley Kubrick, Govan explained that unlike the other arts at LACMA, the film department has been showing no growth, losing audiences and has landed "zero" funding. The HFPA offered LACMA more money to "reconsider our programs and collaborations and study the possibilities," he says. "One thing we lacked was a big constituency for our films and a big network in that world." Govan is looking to rebuild the film department, with the screening program as a catalyst to attract support. He wants to bring more filmmakers into the mix, as he has done with artists such as John Baldessari. He's working on a show on cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa in Mexico. "We're going to hire more people and attract high level curation and expertise as we steadily grow our film screenings, acquisitions and programs," he says. "Our Film Independent partnerhship will help us get a leg up and move faster and give us access to a constituency, expertise and filmmakers."

Both Film Independent and LACMA were looking to expand and improve their year-round film programming while seeking backers. Film Independent wanted to be able to show more films without distribution, for example. As they talked about their common goals, says Hudson, they started to think about pooling their resources at a time when funding is hard to come by. Hudson had already lined up the New York Times (which has a film club) as a major sponsor (more are needed) and was happy to find a home at LACMA. "Finding resources and supporters is an ongoing challenge," says Hudson. "We became like-minded about what a great film program could be." Part of the problem for LACMA are multiple ongoing film programs in LA, from the American Cinematheque to UCLA.

Govan believes that collaboration is the key to institutional success, and points to LACMA and the Getty Museum's pooling of resources to acquire the Robert Mapplethorpe collection. He considers Film Independent to be an artists' organization. "It seemed exciting to link to that network of artists that we didn't have, they have a lot of supporters and a great track record of finding sponsorships after our film program was struggling with so many turndowns and false starts. They felt they could help with fundraising and growth. We've been through a lot in this economy."

Former Warner Bros. chief Terry Semel, who is LACMA's co-chairman after having served on the museum board of trustees for two years, had promised more strong film programming, which has been under threat. “I am determined to make film and filmmakers a more integral part of this museum,” he said at a museum event for Clint Eastwood last year. “We will continue to introduce programs that celebrate the art of film and give it its proper place at LACMA.” Semel said that the museum hopes to attract more filmmaker events tied to DVD releases. Now Semel states: “LACMA’s assessment of its film program has resulted in a deeper commitment. The museum will present major exhibitions focused on the art of film, including the upcoming MOMA-organized Tim Burton, Gabriel Figueroa in 2013, and Stanley Kubrick next year. We wanted to strengthen the series, not compete with what other presenters are doing, which is why Film Independent is a natural choice."

The new weekly Film Series will launch in September 2011 with:

"previews of feature-length narrative and documentary films; archival films and repertory series; conversations with emerging and established filmmakers and artists; international showcases; family films; and special guest-curated programs. In addition, monthly post-screening receptions will bring together the Los Angeles creative community by offering a gathering place for film lovers, artists and the general public. The current LACMA film program, as well as Film Independent’s year-round Film Series will continue through mid-September. Additionally, LACMA will continue its Tuesday matinee series and film programs presented in conjunction with special exhibitions."

Birnie's final film series will be a Tim Burton retrospective this summer complementing the Tim Burton exhibition opening May 29. “We are enormously grateful to Ian for his substantial contribution to LACMA’s film program over the last fifteen years,” says Govan. “His commitment, discerning vision, and hard work have been invaluable.”

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More: Directors, Genres, News, Martin Scorsese, Classics

13 Comments

  • Doug Cummings | April 9, 2011 2:30 AMReply

    Yep, LACMA has been cutting the budget for its film program for years and canceled its print calendar long ago--they even forced the Film Department to shutdown their Facebook page to fold it within the main LACMA Facebook page, which rarely mentions film.

    Birnie's programming goals are well known ( http://bit.ly/i6MEJ9 ) and they do indeed fit a void in the Los Angeles cultural landscape. When so many venues are targeting genre/fanboy/clubhouse clientele, Birnie's world cinema emphasis has always been the most diverse and democratic, attended by a very wide assortment of people.

  • John Lang | April 8, 2011 8:59 AMReply

    "Part of the problem for LACMA are multiple ongoing film programs in LA, from the American Cinematheque to UCLA."

    I do not see the problem for LACMA being competition, but marketing and a firmer and more clear programing goals. The American Cinematheque, New Beverly, and Cinefamily put LACMA under the table when it comes to getting the word out. The website and calendar are not the most friendly or easy to get to (kudos to the cinematheque on their new web redesign). More must be done to attract an audience outside of museum membership.

    If LACMA were to focus primarily on foreign (classic and contemporary) as well as contemporary independent cinema, they would fill a programming void in town. The other repertory houses do program these types of films, however they are largely a peripheral part of the programming, not the focus.

    I used to program for the Austin Cinematheque and this sort of mindset is what allowed us to succeed on a shoe string budget. We looked at what everyone else in town was playing, and provided a program no one else did. I do not think LACMA needs to be that extreme, but it's a start.

  • beeswax | April 8, 2011 8:21 AMReply

    Michael Govan remains my least-favorite person in my hometown of Los Angeles. (Imagine his competition.)

    Thanks, Mr. Birnie, for all the beautiful prints and special events I've been able to see over the years.

  • Doug Cummings | April 7, 2011 9:07 AMReply

    A Parisian trip to research Stanley Kubrick is absurd (is he a curator or CEO?), as is Govan's tired assertion that the film department 'has been showing no growth and losing audiences.' LACMA's own ex-president--who openly hated the film program--admitted to the Los Angeles Times last year that because of the new uptick in audience, "we were able to cover the cost of the program for the first time in many years." ( http://lat.ms/dLZdHM )

    Anyone who attends LACMA film screenings knows 1) they are usually very well attended, and 2) even a house two-thirds empty for the cavernous Bing still means 200 ticket buyers--an enviable number for any repertory theatre in town. Lubitsch was packed.

    I'm confused by the suggestions here and in LACMA's own press release that the $75,000 HFPA gave them was put toward "reconsidering" the program rather than the program itself. That's some expensive thinking!

    Dave Kehr is right, this is a strategic move to make LACMA Film a hipster indie scene with commercial "buzz" rather than a survey of classic world cinema and important film festival highlights, as Ian Birnie has delivered for over a decade. In the first four months this year, Birnie has brought us Chabrol, Straub & Huillet, Jordan Belson, Godard, Bresson and so much more--don't expect to see filmmakers like this again once the new regime is in place. (And yes Ms. Chasman, Birnie also did a whole series devoted to an actress this year; last year he devoted a whole series to a cinematographer.)

  • Dan Ireland | April 7, 2011 9:00 AMReply

    The film programs and retrospectives that Ian Birnie has brought to LACMA have been unique and unlike any other film programmer in this country, daring, original and beyond worthy. And as always, the fate of any festival, or series, rests on the ability to reach out to the public and advertise -- to get the word out. With the LACMA budget cut backs and the loss of the flyer, and the off and on again support of the LA Times (depending on space and the interest of the reviewer), it's been a tough road for Mr Birnie to buck, especially with the lack of support from the passive/aggressive powers that be. Regardless, I'm not sure which films Ms Chasman attended in the Lubitsch festival, but every single time I attended the theatre was 3/4 full, or more. Aside from the attendance issue, the evening that Mr Lubitsch's daughter appeared was something to behold. The same goes for the evening with Jane Fonda, never have I seen a more vibrant informative tribute in any festival, with shared confidences that only happen to audiences once in a lifetime, if you're lucky. I co-founded and ran a film festival for more than a decade, and thirty years later, it's still going strong. Why? Because we were able to advertise, we even engaged a major newspaper (The Seattle Times) into backing our event by printing our flyer for us at their cost and most important of all, we had the support of the audience and press alike, they took us, and still do seriously. It's leg work, dedication, and finally you, the audience that makes things work, or not. Regardless of who comes in and what magic tricks they have up their sleeve, it's going to be a frosty friday before someone tops Mr Birnie with his exquisite programming skills. And btw, the quality of prints that he (Mr Birnie) has been able come up with is nothing short of mind blowing, and that's no mean feat! Camera negative prints of Il Conformista, Last Tango In Paris, La Dolce Vita, to mention just a few. Funny, we're in the film capital of the world, and yet the lack of support from the people that could make a difference is heartbreaking. What's the lyrics from that old Joni Mitchell song, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot".

  • bob hawk | April 7, 2011 7:23 AMReply

    per Dawn Hudson: "The sum is greater than the whole." Huh?????

  • Anne Thompson | April 7, 2011 6:59 AMReply

    I agree with you Julia, but it does worry me that Govan seems more interested in contemporary filmmaker/artists than in classic films of the past.

  • Debra Levine | April 7, 2011 6:41 AMReply

    Anne, as you know, I headed up the grassroots coalition "Save Film at LACMA" which brought the film program back from the dead. We explicitly stated from the jump that nothing was wrong with the film program that some financial shoring up and better marketing couldn't fix. I'm uneasy that this new presence in the Bing, for years a temple of pure cinema art, includes elements of commercialism; on the other hand, we now have fixed a place for film at the museum (note the lack of clarity over how long the collaboration runs for). So let's hope for the best. I could relate to the gentleman, writing above, who is taking this opportunity to spend more time at the city's other film outlets; for twenty years, LACMA has been my #1 honey. Now I feel free to cheat on her.

    How can we as a community bid adieu to Ian Birnie, himself a sensitive artist, who has now twice endured getting the boot from an art museum?

  • Julia Chasman | April 7, 2011 4:22 AMReply

    I have to say I agree, Fredell, though I understand the inclination to just get away from simple retrospectives; if all the audience wanted was a Lubitsch retrospective with all the bells and whistles -- well, then they would be showing up at LACMA -- and they haven't been, for awhile. I think the answer lies in true exciting curatorship, which has always relied on a marriage of contemporary zeitgeist and an insightful probing of history, in just the right balance, at just the right moment. The most exciting retrospectives always have the feeling of a discovery -- of something new revealed by shining a light on a certain group of films at this exact moment.

    There will always be new audiences for the classics, and we can all wish we could have the opportunity to see some of these films again for the first time. But bringing them up again at just the right time -- perhaps side by side with something contemporary, or in comparison to a similar movement in a different country, or based on a thematic approach, rather than the usual auteur grouping.....or throwing the whole auteur theory wide open for timely dissection! What about that? What if we showed the films of a screenwwriter, rather than a director? What if we looked at all the films based on great novels and then at the ones based on bad novels? These are some of the approaches I would turn out to see.

    And while I hate to shoot down an idea before it's born --- I feel fairly skeptical about the idea of showing films which are seeking distribution; while this would please me as an independent producer, it seems so potentially rife with conflicts of interest and risky in terms of quality control --- I'm a little surprised that LACMA would be thought a good testing ground. Aren't there enough venues between festivals and markets, and market/festivals (which rarely include older films) to show these new films?

  • Fredell Pogodin | April 6, 2011 12:24 PMReply

    I can thoroughly appreciate that times are rough financially and businesses (even an art museum) can't run on a deficit but the LACMA Film Program has been an invaluable asset to the community and in the formation of my own taste. If it weren't for Ian Birnie, I would not have seen the Lubitsch films or reseen the ones I saw at a much younger age and could now appreciate on a whole other level now that I know more about film (and life!). One year I even cancelled a vacation in order to resee Kieslowski's DECALOGUE and all of his earlier work. There's an endless list of films and filmmakers I know thanks to Ian and his astute programming.

    The Redcat already does a great job of programming of programming avante-garde fare. And the American Cinematheque does an admirable job in terms of retros but as a rule doesn't have the resources to do the sort of in depth retrospectives that LACMA does, particularly of foreign filmmakers. As for the LA Film Festival, I look forward yearly to attending the festival and discovering a new film that will be coming out shortly or may not have a distributor.

    I believe that Michael Govan's attempt to reconstitute the department is misguided. I didn't "get " Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning or a number of other artists until I saw full retrospectives of their work and then the light bulb went off. I am not interested in attending DVD launches; I can see those films on DVD. I want to see world-class filmmakers watching the best print possible on a big screen. No one does that as well as LACMA does and I hope they will continue to do that.

  • Dave Kehr | April 6, 2011 10:31 AMReply

    What could be more tired than a Stanley Kubirck retrospective, most of which will probably be shown digitally? Maybe LACMA could use the influence of some of its board members to get the studios to face their responsibility toward their heritage, and actually get some of the many, many films they've been allowing to languish in their vaults back in circulation. That's what Film Forum has been able to do, and it accounts for their loyal audience. But it sounds like the priority here is the familiar one -- to showcase independent films that are looking for buyers.

  • Joseph Angier | April 6, 2011 9:25 AMReply

    I hate to say it - and I sound like a traitor/defeatist for saying it - maybe the Cinematheque's two screens, the UCLA programming, the New Beverly, Cinefamily, and regular assists from the Nuart are what the L.A. market can sustain. That begs the question of why New York's Film Forum is so successful, with multiple sold out screenings week after week. I don't know, but part of the answer is that they're presenting in three very tine theaters.

  • Disheartened | April 6, 2011 6:09 AMReply

    What's disheartening is that the NY Times is behind this and the LA Times is silent. Martin Scorsese, last I looked, is a NY resident. Were no LA film makers outraged over the loss of the Museum's film program? Very sad.

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