By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
For Cinematheque director Barbara Zicka Smith, the opening was the culmination of a prolonged search for a permanent home for the organization, a place to celebrate films from around the world, from '30s Hollywood to avant-garde Japanese, to provide an alternative to a mercurial industry focused on the bottom line. The restored Egyptian also represented one of the first completed projects in the Hollywood area's much-vaunted rejuvenation.
And so, on that bitingly cold winter night, longtime Cinematheque staffers joined with several hundred of their closest friends and supporters -- and Charlton Heston -- to nibble hors d'oeuvres beneath murals of Isis and Osiris in the theater's long, spare forecourt, and to view the silent epic that had premiered there exactly 75 years before. For Smith, and many of the celebrants, it was a perfect night.
But for Cinematheque board co-chair Mike Medavoy, there was one troubling omission: potential donors. Medavoy, chief executive of Phoenix Pictures and one of the founding members of the Sundance Institute's board of governors, had helped launch the Cinematheque's capital campaign earlier that year. He was acutely aware that funding for the restoration project was short by upward of $2 million -- more than double the organization's annual operating budget. Not to mention the project's $5 million endowment, still to be raised to ensure its future operation, as well as over $3 million in outstanding loans. A gala opening, he reasoned, was an unparalleled opportunity to dip into some of Hollywood's untapped deep pockets. "None of the people who came were big givers," he recalls. "Why didn't any of those people come to the opening? I don't have an answer for that."
The answer, says Smith, is simple. The opening of the Egyptian was not a fund-raiser. "I never viewed it as a night for people who might give us money," she says. "I viewed it as a payoff for people who had already knocked themselves out."
Now, some seven months later, the Cinematheque has failed to make a dent in the debt, leaving some supporters wondering whether the organization exhausted itself getting the theater open, with little thought given to keeping the operation up and running. Since the opening, the Cinematheque has been gripped by a malaise described variously by Smith and board members as "burnout," a "lull" and "postpartum depression." "Once the building opened," observes Variety reporter Len Klady, "the energy within the organization slowed down." Sitting at her desk in a gloomy office building overlooking Hollywood and Highland, her tired eyes framed by oversized glasses, Smith doesn't disagree. "I think now we'd all rather just be sipping cappuccino in the courtyard, going to see a movie now and then," she says of the fund-raising. "I'm like, we should have done this already."
As anyone in the nonprofit world knows, when it comes to fund-raising, L.A. is a notoriously tough market. An organization like the Cinematheque has an added handicap -- it's operating in a city that has never valued its history, and it is dependent on an industry that is even less interested in preserving its own legacy. But unless those funds are raised, the Egyptian may be forced to close its doors, either temporarily, which is as much as Smith will concede is possible, or permanently, as others familiar with the theater's operations fear.
THE EGYPTIAN THEATER IS SITUATED IN THE MIDDLE OF a typically scruffy block of Hollywood Boulevard, between a pizza parlor and a vacant storefront, a few short blocks from two other old-time movie palaces -- the El Capitan, recently restored by Disney as a showcase for its animation and stage extravaganzas, and Mann's Chinese Theater, which is probably the most famous theater in the world and has been operating continuously since 1927.
The Egyptian is a different animal altogether, providing a blend of obscure, retro, foreign and mainstream films, few of which have mass-market appeal. The June lineup alone, assembled by staffers Dennis Bartok, Margot Gerber and others, included a William Friedkin retrospective, a series of short films from Australia, a 20th-anniversary screening of Alien, a "Mods and Rockers" series highlighting movies from the late '60s and early '70s, and several showings of independent, undistributed American films. The Cinematheque also regularly rents out the space -- in December, DreamWorks premiered The Prince of Egyptat the theater. "It's the best place to see a movie in the world," enthuses Peter Dekom, an entertainment consultant and investment banker who co-chairs the Cinematheque's board.
But few moviegoers outside the rarefied world of film aficionados are regular patrons of the Egyptian -- on an average night, just a third of its 600 seats are filled. Smith says the goal was never to draw a capacity crowd. That would run counter to the Cinematheque's mission, as originally envisioned by founders Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams.