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Seven months ago, the American Cinematheque triumphantly completed its renovation of Hollywood's Egyptian Theater. Now the organization is $2 million in debt. Can it survive?

Wednesday, Jul 28 1999
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It was a tense time for the staff, which had to deal with threats from creditors. Brian Garrido, a public affairs officer for the UCLA Television and Film Archives, calls the two years he did marketing and publicity for the Cinematheque, until mid-1997, "a tumultuous period. Even Barbara was saying things might close down. You never knew if you were going to walk into a job the next day."

EVERYONE ASSOCIATED WITH THE CINEMATHEQUE praises Smith for her leading role in getting the Egyptian open, but some board members say they are now concerned about paying off the debt. "Barbara did a brilliant job of bringing it to penultimate fruition," says Charles Champlin, a former L.A. Times film critic who has been on the Cinematheque board for six years. "Now we immediately need to get that 2 million bucks."

The first inclination of both Smith and the board members is to blame the debt on a stinginess among industry types, especially when it comes to forking over cash for organizations such as the Cinematheque. "It has, I don't want to say a stigma, but it's probably sexier to go to a Gucci fashion show than a friend's film retrospective," says Cinematheque president Sigurjon "Joni" Sighvatsson. But when questioned more closely, even board members identified as active fund-raisers admit they have done little to fulfill their obligation.

Champlin believes the bulk of responsibility for fund-raising lies not with Smith, but with the 29-member board, which has not risen to the task. "Some of the board folks who were hopefully going to rustle up a bunch of money haven't been able to do it," says Champlin. "Why that is, I'm sure I don't know." He doesn't exclude himself from blame. "I'm not the world's greatest arm-twister," he says. "In fact, I'm one of the worst." Medavoy, who helped launch the Egyptian's $12.9 million capital campaign in the spring of 1998, puts himself in that category, too. "I hate asking for money," he admits. "I'm basically someone who's like a cheerleader."

After the board launched its capital campaign, the money started flowing in. The Cinematheque had put in an initial $1.2 million, and the city helped with a $3 million grant and a $2 million HUD loan. Lloyd E. Rigler, an 82-year-old arts patron who made his fortune selling Adolph's Meat Tenderizer, gave $1.2 million to have the main theater dedicated in his name. Panavision gave $500,000 for an inscribed glass panel bordering the lobby; the William Morris Agency paid $250,000 for a row of paving stones spelling out the company's name; and MCA, Miramax and Time-Warner also contributed. Steve Tisch, producer of Forrest Gump and co-chair of the Cinematheque's capital campaign, gave $100,000 for the concession stand. Board members Medavoy and Sighvatsson sponsored paving stones, which, depending on location, cost between $5,000 and $50,000 each. An additional 1,000 donors ponied up between $40 and $1,000 a year for ticket discounts and invitations to private screenings and events.

But sometime last summer, with many major studios and other potential big givers left untapped, the donations tapered off. The Cinematheque found itself with no endowment and $2 million in restoration bills. Shortly before the opening, Smith told reporters she hoped the newly restored theater would spur donations that would help pay for a variety of unmet costs, such as restoration of a 13-ton vintage Wurlitzer and installation of the projector in the still-closed 75-seat Steven Spielberg theater just off the lobby. Instead, the opening seems to have had the opposite effect. "The outside perception was, ah, they're open," recalls Variety's Klady, who donated $1,000 to have his name inscribed on a theater seat. "There seemed no longer a great need to give it extra support."

Board member Jim Robinson, chairman of Morgan Creek Films, says the Cinematheque needs to take a more aggressive approach. "Money is not thrown around in Hollywood," he says. "Charities, or foundations, or whatever you want to call them, they've got to go out and work hard for it. Just because you stand next to a rich person doesn't mean he's going to give you money." At the same time, Robinson says he "wouldn't feel one bit bad if it takes five years" to pay off the Cinematheque's debt and raise the endowment money. "It's just a matter of how do you eat an elephant," he says. "One piece at a time."

Board co-chair Dekom is even more upbeat. He points out that the Cinematheque has paid 85 percent of its construction cost, says the theater just received a $500,000 anonymous donation and calls the remaining 15 percent in debt "statistically insignificant." Nonetheless, he says â he'd like to see it paid off by the end of the year.

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