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Scorsese Writes Letter Protesting LACMA Film Shut-Down

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 12, 2009 at 9:51AM

Here is director Martin Scorsese's open letter to Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, who actually sat down and talked with his recently laid-off program director Ian Birnie this month while they both vacationed in the Hamptons. In July, Govan told Birnie he was losing his job after 13 years without ever giving him the chance to alter his programming or improve attendance. Birnie, who was job hunting back East, says that Govan had no idea what kind of reaction his hasty decision to shutter the film program this October would inspire from the film community. Govan has agreed to meet with the Save Film at LACMA group. UPDATE: The meet is confirmed for September 1.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Here is director Martin Scorsese's open letter to Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan, who actually sat down and talked with his recently laid-off program director Ian Birnie this month while they both vacationed in the Hamptons. In July, Govan told Birnie he was losing his job after 13 years without ever giving him the chance to alter his programming or improve attendance. Birnie, who was job hunting back East, says that Govan had no idea what kind of reaction his hasty decision to shutter the film program this October would inspire from the film community. Govan has agreed to meet with the Save Film at LACMA group. UPDATE: The meet is confirmed for September 1.


I am deeply disturbed by the recent decision to suspend the majority of film screenings at LACMA. For those of us who love cinema and believe in its value as an art form, this news hits hard.

We all know that the film industry, like many other institutions and industries, has to be radically rebuilt for the future. This is now apparent to everyone. But in the midst of all this change, the value and power of cinema’s past will only increase, and the need to show films as they were intended to be shown will become that much more pressing. So 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.

My personal connection to LACMA stretches back almost 40 years to when I lived in L.A.during the '70s and regularly attended their vibrant film series, programmed by the legendary Ron Haver. It was actually at LACMA, during a 20th Century Fox retrospective, that I first became aware of the issues of color film fading and the urgent need for film preservation. Ian Birnie, a programmer of immaculate taste and knowledge, has continued in the tradition of Ron Haver, who was so well-versed in cinema past and present. I do not understand why this approach to programming needs to be re-thought. I am puzzled by the notion of pegging future film programming to “artist-created films,” as stated in the letter announcing this shift – to do this would be tantamount to downgrading the worth of cinema. Aren’t the best films made by artists in the first place?

Without places like LACMA and other museums, archives, and festivals where people can still see a wide variety of films projected on screen with an audience, what do we lose? We lose what makes the movies so powerful and such a pervasive cultural influence. If this is not valued in Hollywood, what does that say about the future of the art form? Aren’t museums serving a cultural purpose beyond appealing to the largest possible audience? I know that my life and work have been enriched by places like LACMA and MoMA whose public screening programs enabled me to see films that would never have appeared at my local movie theater, and that lose a considerable amount of their power and beauty on smaller screens.

I believe that LACMA is taking an unfortunate course of action. I support the petition that is still circulating, with well over a thousand names at this point, many of them prominent. It comes as no surprise to me that the public is rallying. People from all over the world are speaking out, because they see this action – correctly, I think – as a serious rebuke to film within the context of the art world. The film department is often held at arms’ length at LACMA and other institutions, separate from the fine arts, and this simply should not be. Film departments should be accorded the same respect, and the same amount of financial leeway, as any other department of fine arts. To do otherwise is a disservice to cinema, and to the public as well.

I hope that LACMA will reverse this unfortunate decision.

--Martin Scorsese
New York, N.Y.

This article is related to: Exhibition


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.