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A turning point came on Aug. 12, 2009, when the L.A. Times published an "open letter" by Martin Scorsese, addressed to Govan and LACMA, pledging his support to the Save Film at LACMA cause.
If a screening series like Birnie's is "not valued in Hollywood," Scorsese wrote, "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?"
Today, Govan forcefully insists that an increase in attendance could never have saved Birnie's program. "I never put that forward. It was always over-simplified.
"You do some programs that are going to bring in a lot of people, so that you can do some programs where there aren't a lot of people, but you have more intellectual influence," he continues. "But numbers don't pay the bills. Not-for-profits, these days, are really based on patronage.
"Before, we were losing audiences, and we had no patrons," Govan says. "So that was going nowhere fast."
The initial response to the suspension was, indeed, an increase in patronage. Time Warner's Ovation cable network and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (best known as the organization responsible for the Golden Globes) combined to provide $150,000. That funded the program through June 2010.
But when Govan approached the foreign press group about continuing its patronage for a second year, the organization declined. "They said, 'We aren't giving you a grant because we aren't sure we think that your program is necessary.' I was furious."
Govan says he convinced the Hollywood Foreign Press to give LACMA a grant to explore its options. He then consulted with studio heads and nonprofits as to the best way to build a program that local, cash-rich entities would consider indispensable.
One of the key takeaways from these meetings was that LACMA could benefit from collaborating with another institution. A major asset LACMA brought to any partnership was its 600-seat Bing Theater and — perhaps more valuable in L.A. — ample, free nighttime parking. This was attractive to FILM Independent. That organization based its L.A. Film Festival at a multiplex at downtown's L.A. Live but had no permanent home for film events for the rest of the year.
In addition to infrastructure, FIND had access to two things Govan wanted: a large constituency of industry workers, and proven relationships with major corporate sponsors. FIND's ability to get the New York Times on board as a presenting sponsor at launch helped seal the deal.
Govan paid lip service to the concerns of the cinephile community. But today he admits that Birnie's program never could have been saved. Once the museum set its sights on film as a way to attract private donations and corporate sponsorship, Ian Birnie had to go.
"The collaboration would need new leadership," Govan says. Curating films would be just one aspect of the "growth program" he had in mind; Govan also wanted his curator to play an active role in fundraising and marketing.
Of Birnie, Govan says, "Ian's a very modest guy. That kind of entrepreneurial growth was not what he was in it for."
Govan has unquestionably been a catalyst for growth at the museum. He's led the construction of two new exhibition halls, as well as a restaurant and a bar. Attendance reportedly has increased 40 percent during his tenure. But LACMA's 2009 tax returns (the most recent available) show that donations to the museum on the whole, while on the rise in 2006 and 2007, plummeted to a five-year low of just under $41 million in 2009. That might help to explain why, after basically functioning as an ancillary program for decades, the film department suddenly was tagged that year as a potential area of growth.
Expert at attracting media coverage and deep-pocketed patrons, Govan — like his new film programmer — has been accused of living a little too large. In 2009, even as he told various media outlets that the museum couldn't afford to keep supporting a film program that he claimed had lost $1 million in the course of a decade, Govan notched a total of $1.1 million in annual salary, bonuses and deferred compensation, according to LACMA's tax returns.
Govan's own 1 percent status allows him to get close to the elites whose patronage the museum needs. A number of Hollywood players have joined LACMA's board of trustees during Govan's tenure, including Barbra Streisand, CAA super-agent Bryan Lourd and producer Brian Grazer. In April, a $467,500 donation from another board member, Steve Tisch (producer of the Taking of Pelham 123 remake), covered the full purchase price of Christian Marclay's video installation The Clock. The Clock was installed in a gallery for two months, and, though the film department had nothing to do with its acquisition or presentation, it was given two 24-hour screenings at the Bing over the summer. These screenings had the aura of happenings, attracting new audiences.
Writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) had never seen a film at LACMA before The Clock. "I kind of knew that there was a screening series, but not really," he says. He's now presenting live table reads of screenplays at the Bing once a month as part of Mitchell's series.
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