Screen Test

Photo by Debra DiPaolo
THE FEATURED FILM AT THE EGYPTIAN THEATER'S opening gala last December was Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments -- a fitting choice for an event that many in attendance considered nothing short of a miracle. The American Cinematheque, a tiny nonprofit exhibition group little known outside the land of local film freaks, had managed to save the oldest movie palace in Hollywood from the wrecking ball and restore it to its original understated splendor.

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 Egypt at 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.

The Garys, as they were known, founded the now-defunct Filmex, L.A.'s first film festival, in the early '70s. In 1984, they launched the Cinematheque, hiring the staff of programmers and administrators, including Smith, which remains much the same today. They found temporary quarters for the Cinematheque on studio backlots, first at DGA, then at Raleigh, where each weekend they screened what Smith calls "minifestivals." And they created the Moving Picture Ball, an annual fund-raising event that drew the Hollywood glitterati for an evening and paid the bills all year. What they had not managed to do before their deaths, just weeks apart in 1992 from complications of AIDS, was fulfill their ultimate goal: finding the Cinematheque a permanent home.

Just before their deaths, Essert and Abrahams were approached by the city about taking over the Egyptian, then shuttered and threatened with demolition. The city had purchased the building to save it from destruction. The Garys, put off by the size of the theater and the desperate conditions on the boulevard, were hesitant. But to Smith, who later assumed the Cinematheque's directorship, the idea of an autonomous project designed solely for the nonprofit was immensely appealing. In early 1993, she began negotiating with the city, which initially planned to renovate the Egyptian and lease it to the organization.

Then the 1994 earthquake hit, tearing holes in the ceiling and loosing huge chunks of the hollow clay tiles that lined the theater walls. Hundreds of transients moved in, trashing the projectors and making off with everything of value. There was no electricity, and rain poured in through unplugged leaks. But in early 1996, when the city offered the Cinematheque $5 million in loans and grants and the deed to the Egyptian for $1, Smith didn't hesitate. "We had invested so much energy in this project that I don't think we really had a choice," Smith says. "We were so committed to just going forward."

SMITH, WHO HAS A MASTER'S DEGREE IN COMMUNICATIONS and deep ties to the Cinematheque, has lived and breathed the Egyptian project from its inception more than six years ago. She has labored alongside the same 11-member staff throughout, preferring to wade through the contracting and development morass on her own rather than hire experts to lead her. "You hire somebody, and then you have to tell that person everything, and then you're paying them when you're the one telling them what to do," she says. "For us, it generally works better just to do it ourselves."

By taking over the theater, the Cinematheque -- and by extension Smith -- became for the first time a major-property owner, developer and restorer. The burden was enormous. Smith, accustomed to working with a few staff members and film lovers and operating with an annual budget of about $750,000, found herself dealing with architects, preservationists and city functionaries. There was, she says, "an astounding amount of paperwork and bureaucracy" and "endless, endless historic review."

It soon became clear, however, that the $13 million projected budget would not cover the constant -- and costly -- unanticipated challenges. "The earthquake was flashy damage," Smith says. "But we didn't realize the extent of the water damage that had accumulated over the years. You would touch the plaster and it would turn to dust." The renovated theater, which includes the main 618-seat theater, a balcony and a second 75-seat theater, left no room for office space. So the Cinematheque ended up spending $300,000 on a slipshod house behind the Egyptian. A replica of the original 1920s neon Egyptian sign alone cost $100,000.

After renovations were well under way, workers digging near the screen discovered an underground oil tank that had been used to fuel the theater's original heating system. Extensive tests had to be performed to determine that oil hadn't leaked into the soil, and the tank then had to be removed. When workers found an original, intricately painted ceiling in the women's restroom, Smith decided to preserve it. "We could have covered it back up, which would have cost $50," Smith says. "Instead we restored it, which cost something like $15,000." In the end, Smith says, the restoration budget crept up to $15 million.  

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.  

Smith herself has done little to drum up funds, instead concentrating on theater operations. "We've had a million things to deal with," she says, "just making sure everything is running smoothly." But others suspect that Smith shied away from a task that leaves her more than a little uncomfortable. "There's a certain kind of Hollywood schmoozer mentality, and that's not what Barbara is, that's not her thing," says Todd McCarthy, lead film critic for Variety.

Last winter, when the magnitude of coming up with millions of dollars became clear, she hired a fund-raiser for the Egyptian project for the first time. That person apparently accomplished little and quickly departed. Smith is tightlipped about the circumstances, but one board member called the person a "flake." Smith did not hire a replacement until last month -- nearly a year later. Now she acknowledges that "this last $2 million is harder to raise" than the rest of the Egyptian funding. She even says, half jokingly, "This project will be my end."

Smith and the board are pinning their hopes on the new fund-raiser, Santa Monica­based Frances Kidd, to pull the organization through. Just how Kidd plans to accomplish this is unclear -- she did not return calls for comment. Smith says she is confident about Kidd's abilities and insists that the organization is on the verge of turning its financial picture around; she says the fund-raiser's first task will be to target donors in the $100,000-plus range. At the same time, however, Smith says that in moments of despair she has considered the possibility of halting the nightly movie programming for several months or more, so that money could be raised by renting out the space for private functions. As for closing the theater permanently, Smith says she "couldn't bear the thought. After all that has gone into this, it's unthinkable. Simply unthinkable."


THE $2 MILLION CONSTRUCTION DEBT IS not the Cinematheque's only financial worry -- it's just the most immediate. There's $1.7 million owed of the $2 million from HUD, with annual payments coming due starting in the fall of 2001; a $500,000 loan from Kodak to help pay for Forever Hollywood, a tourist-oriented movie directed by Todd McCarthy that is slated to begin running at the theater starting in late fall; and the $5 million endowment for office space, theater upkeep and program development.

Smith expects to spend about $1.5 million to $2 million of that on a new office building, and about $10,000 on a small bookstore in the theater. She'd also like to up the tiny advertising budget -- because the theater's programming changes almost daily, it is not listed with general movie releases in newspapers, making it difficult for the casual moviegoer to find out what's playing.

Those costs, Smith believes, won't be hard to meet, once everything at the Egyptian is open. A long-anticipated restaurant in the theater's forecourt would be a boon. Initially, the space was going to be occupied by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, who run the Border Grill in Santa Monica and Ciudad downtown. But they backed out after deciding that the dining room was too small. Sean McPhearson, of Olive and Jones fame, is now said to be interested. But there is no evidence that the restaurant will open any time soon.

Smith is hoping that box-office proceeds from Forever Hollywood, which will run several times a day, will help it pay for itself, though some observers wonder how many tour groups en route from the Wax Museum to Universal CityWalk will have the time or patience to sit through an hourlong film.

For now, the Egyptian Theater is gated off and empty during daylight hours -- prime tourist time. True to its original design, there is no marquee, leaving it to look more like a private research institute than a theater. The building itself is tucked far back from the street, behind a sturdy cast-iron fence that bars entry to the long forecourt. On any given day, passing tourists peer through the bars, straining to satisfy an image of Hollywood that the dozens of T-shirt shops and fast-food outlets lining the boulevard fail to fulfill. For the time being, this stop, too, proves a disappointment. The casually curious simply move on.


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