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Elvis Mitchell is New Film Independent/LACMA Film Curator

by Anne Thompson
June 16, 2011 4:32 AM
16 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood


Elvis Mitchell lands on his feet yet again. One thing about having been a film critic at the New York Times, visiting professor at Harvard, documentary filmmaker, and KCRW host of The Treatment: you get plenty of cred.

Thus it's no surprise that Film Independent and Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan are hiring film critic Mitchell (who recently departed Movieline under a cloud of controversy) as the museum's outsourced film curator. He in effect will replace outgoing film curator Ian Birnie, who has run LACMA's film department for 14 years. The film program at LACMA was saved from suspension in October 2008 by an outcry from the film community, including director Martin Scorsese, and bailouts from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV, which helped to cover budget shortfalls. Mitchell will start on July 11 and move back to Los Angeles.

One of Mitchell's longtime champions is new Academy chief Dawn Hudson, who admired Mitchell's many Q & As over the years for Film Independent; there's no debate over Mitchell's skills as an interviewer. One can see the assets Mitchell brings; he has vast knowledge and love of movies as well as a global rolodex of contacts, many of them top filmmakers and celebrities. No one is better connected. UPDATE: IndieWIRE interviews him here.

In April, Hudson closed a deal with Govan, days before announcing her departure for the Academy, to launch a Film Independent film series at LACMA in September sponsored by the NYT.

Revenues from LACMA’s new film club, which charges extra to members, did not increase the film department budget, which stayed the same. Thus 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 an indie film organization that mounts the annual Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival, which opens Thursday, June 16. Govan told me at the time:


"We’re going to hire more people and attract high level curation and expertise as we steadily grow our film screenings, acquisitions and programs. Our Film Independent partnership will help us get a leg up and move faster and give us access to a constituency, expertise and filmmakers...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.”

The fall program promised by Govan will include:


“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.”

So it looks like we can say goodbye to full classic retrospectives like the recent Renoir (18 films) and Lubitsch (16), during which films like Trouble in Paradise sold out the Bing Theatre's 600 seats. This kind of programming is rare in America--even film festivals can't go that deep. Birnie tracked down a series of films that influenced photographer Diane Arbus, revealing the 60s tabloid world she lived in. He booked several series featuring film noir cinematographers. The museum wants to move into booking more independent filmmaker artists and events programming. Which is where Mitchell comes in.

Mitchell may have a vision for this LACMA gig. And he could do wonderful things for the program, which is what LA film lovers really care about. But it's also important to preserve the legacy of classic programming and the loyal following the film department has developed over the years, even though the department ran on a shoe-string. Govan has stars in his eyes and wants celebrities -- so far this year Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Catherine Deneuve and Jacqueline Bisset have appeared on the LACMA stage. And the Bing may be refurbished with new seats, projectors and screen as part of LACMA's long-stalled film facelift.

Well, they're hiring a celebrity in Mitchell. But film curating is more than picking movies to show -- it's licensing, getting releases, cajoling studios into giving up their best prints, insurance, shipping -- at a time when studios and archives are cutting their budgets for reprinting, restoring and sharing films. You have to be a diplomat and an archaeologist to find the films, as well as rely on trusted relationships. You have to know where the bodies-- and films--are buried. In other words, you really have to do your homework and be a details person. Those duties will largely be filled by the person who really does work for LACMA's film department, Birnie's long-time second-in-command, Bernardo Rondeau.

What should give Govan pause are Mitchell's skills as an administrator/manager/organizer. As I hear it, the museum will add a secretary/assistant to its minimal department budget of about $150,000, and will pay Mitchell handsomely, sending him to film festivals around the world, thus upping the budget to some $400,000. As I have reported before, managing money, time and commitments is not Mitchell's strong suit, nor is meeting deadlines. That's why he has left or lost one job after another, from NPR to the New York Times. Famously, he never turned up for a job he had accepted at the L.A. Times, nor for a job as a development exec for Sony.

Will Mitchell deliver? If he plays his cards right he'll bring in a whole new audience--as LACMA is pushing hard for the MoMA-originated Tim Burton exhibit to do. In the meantime, this July LACMA will showcase the audience hits of the past 14 years: it starts with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and ends, fittingly, with Japan's Late Autumn.

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More: Reviews, News, Exhibition

16 Comments

  • Bill Reed | June 27, 2011 8:31 AMReply

    Ron Haver is rolling over in his grave.

  • David Ehrenstein | June 17, 2011 11:53 AMReply

    "Charm to spare?" Riiiiight.

    As in "I call myself Phoebe."

  • Sydney Levine | June 17, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    I agree with Bonnie. Much as I like Film Independent, its LAFF and its Spirit Awards, much as I wish Elvis success, I fail to understand why NOW the budget gets increased and the classic series which defined LACMA's film series are getting bumped. And with such a reputation as Elvis' preceding him...I wonder seriously how this new direction will hold up over time. His reputation is not Anne's personal vendetta, it's cred.

  • Former film dept employee | June 17, 2011 2:12 AMReply

    You tell 'em Bonnie.

  • Bonnie Voland | June 16, 2011 10:45 AMReply

    I wish Elvis well in his new job. However, it's perplexing as to why the Museum has decided, after years of starving its Film Department, it has now decided to start spending large amounts of money to bring in depth of programming and stars. Funny, these were things that were in abundance at LACMA during Ian Birnie's 14 years running the program, despite the paltry budgets. Stars - screen greats and Oscar winners from the legendary Olivia De Havilland to Jane Fonda, a tribute to Norman Jewison that had Oscar winners Cher and Faye Dunaway sharing a stage with other greats such as Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, and Haskell Wexler; experimental as well as classic international films; premieres of films that often started the buzz going. The Film Program at LACMA was as well-curated as a film lover could ask for, and prints that no one else could obtain Ian Birnie always managed to find a way to have them come to LACMA. His relationships with both domestic and international distributors, with talent both in front of and behind the camera, always made the film program at LACMA a must. From the most current to the time hoinored classics, I could give my daughter a film education deeper than is offered at most universities, and it gave me pleasure and a constant reminder of why we who work in this business do what we do. Birnie, aided by Bernardo Rondeau, proved that passsion, intelligence, relationships and loving what you do can reach thousands of people. Birnie is a tough act to follow, and he will be missed at LACMA - other cultural institutions would be wise to bring him on board.

  • cadavra | June 16, 2011 10:05 AMReply

    Number of times you used "if": four.

    Number of times you used "could" or "should": six.

    That is the answer.

  • Anne Thompson | June 16, 2011 9:31 AMReply

    There's ample reason for skepticism here. But if LACMA wants to support Mitchell and he actually is motivated to do the work, this could be a good fit. God knows it's a dream job, and he should be capable of making it work if he doesn't get distracted by hobnobbing and traveling, and keeps to a budget. It's basically a weekly film series with speakers. He's a great interviewer when he does his homework and often when he doesn't. He has charm to spare, and could become a fixture at the Bing--I could see people becoming loyal followers. He needs a job. And this is a miraculous save on Dawn Hudson's part. If Elvis connects with the town, this could be a good match. And if he rises to the occasion, he could come up with some amazing programming. He has good taste, and a huge knowledge base. But making all the connections real--doing the legwork that is dull and boring--will he get on the phone and hustle? That is the question.

  • cadavra | June 16, 2011 9:23 AMReply

    Govan has made it clear from Day One that he doesn't consider film to be "art." After Mitchell soaks him for a couple hundred thou with nothing to show for it but declining attendance, it'll give Govan the excuse he needs to shut it down for good.

    In a related story, Obama plans to name Ted Nugent as the new head of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fireams.

  • Catie T | June 16, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    This is Govin's attempt at improving LACMA's already distinctive wonderful film program?? Bringing in a four time loser that is known as one of the biggest flakes in the entertainment industry? Obviously, Herr Govin didn't do a lot of checking around, which is par for the course. He'll bankrupt the program with the additional costs of Mr Mitchell, who doesn't have one quarter the talent that Mr Birnie had with this venture. I guess Mr Birnie's crime is that he's not a wanker, unlike Mr. Mitchell, and like Mr Govin very clearly is. Incidentally, I believe all 'the names' this year were due to Mr Birnie and Mr Rondeau's hard work. So, what's up Elvis, another kick back Kubrick fest? Let's hope some enterprising organization grabs Mr Birnie and Mr Rondeau. That would be the ultimate "fuck you" to Govin. Damn their eyes. CT

  • Sergio | June 16, 2011 8:21 AMReply

    NEWSFLASH!

    Elvis Mitchell is now OUT as Film Independent/LACMA Film Curator

    Well that didn't take long did????

  • Jan-Christopher Horak | June 16, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    Anne, we all have our own opinions and concerns regarding the evolving story around LACMA's film program. I would only like to take exception to your statement that "No one else does this kind of programming—even film festivals can’t go that deep," referencing historical film retrospectives. At UCLA Film & Television Archive we regularly stage such programs. Right now we are doing an 11 film Robert Mitchum western series, in May we completed an 18 film, virtually complete Richard Brooks series, to name only two recent examples.

  • Sergio | June 16, 2011 8:11 AMReply

    That cat has got nine lives...

  • Really, Anne? | June 16, 2011 7:28 AMReply

    You just can't help yourself, Anne. While this is undoubtedly more restrained than your properly criticized (by Kim Voynar, among others) last post on Elvis, which was needlessly personal, catty and inclusive of inappropriate and often incorrect hearsay as context from his personal life, you can't help but include a catty, snarky tone in the article. It's beneath the solid reputation you properly earned at Variety and your role as a journalist. Maybe it wasn't beneath you, personally.

  • moghulini | June 16, 2011 6:53 AMReply

    I agree with "The Original El Vez." He once wrote a review about a film about Eichmann and never bothered to look up that my Emmy nominated program was reviewed in the NY Times just months earlier. Just lazy and incompetent.

  • The Original El Vez | June 16, 2011 6:48 AMReply

    C'mon, are you kidding? This shmoozey slacker will last a couple of months, tops, unless of course he finds someone to do the heavy lifting for him while he jets around the world smoking stinky cigars and starf&*ing. As Maynard G. Krebs once said, "Work?! Work?!"

    Elvis is simply not capable of doing any real digging or tough jobs -- it's not in his DNA. This posting requires discipline and the ability to meet deadlines, and time and time again he's shown that he's not up for the task. Hiring Elvis to do a good job is like Sandra Bullock marrying Jesse James and expecting him to be a righteous, stand-up guy. People get a reputation for doing poorly at work because. . . .they do poorly at work.

    See you back at this spot in a few months when you inevitably write the follow-up story of how (a) Elvis never showed up, (b) Elvis was needed to carry out a task and couldn't be found, or (c) Elvis took another job somewhere else and never bothered to tell his current employer.

  • Jeffry Martini | June 16, 2011 6:35 AMReply

    Great Post Anne! Mitchell, as controversial as he has been in the past, does bring some cred to this program. Let's hope he puts in the time & energy to deliver on his promise and this premise.

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