Two years ago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan proposed suspending the then-41-year-old weekend film program because it was losing money for the institution. After a great hue and cry, two donors, Time Warner Cable and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, stepped into the breach to fund the program.

As of June 30, 2011, that temporary infusion will expire.  According to knowledgeable sources, this will mean the end of LACMA film as we currently know it. The esteemed program consisting of an enticing blend of classic U.S. and world cinema, as well as new voices from both the mainstream and independent film communities, is expected to be altered considerably.

LACMA refused to comment to the Weekly earlier this week. Just before press time, a statement was released announcing that current film program director Ian Birnie is stepping aside and, as of September, Film Independent, the nonprofit responsible for the L.A. Film Festival, will program a new film series, underwritten by the New York Times. The press release also promises “a new lead programmer” will be brought into the fold this summer.

Though details are still vague — How long will the partnership last? How much is the Times' sponsorship worth, and what exactly will it cover? — LACMA is intent on spinning this announcement as not a death knell for film presentation at the museum, but a rebirth. Such has been the case since 2009, when museum director Govan first confirmed his desire to drastically redesign film programming at the museum. At that time, Govan said his intention was to create a film department “on the forefront of thinking about how film and moving images are playing an ever-increasing role in contemporary art and life.”

The museum has already begun to schedule screenings outside the auspices of the film department's current two-man team of director Birnie and program coordinator Bernardo Rondeau. Beyond Time, screening April 30, is a documentary about British sculptor and painter William Turnbull. On May 5, LACMA hosts a preview of the 13th-century “ultra-violent” adventure Ironclad, starring Paul Giamatti, timed to the museum's hosting of the Magna Carta.

Birnie and Rondeau's programming, which has offered the only L.A. home for some cinematic rarities and specialty titles such as Michelangelo Antonioni's Le Amiche and Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, will continue through this summer. The Tim Burton retrospective (starting May 29) will include a series of his movies. The summer also will feature Saturday “monster movie” matinees, programming built around the museum's Gifts of the Sultan exhibition, and, most significantly, the long-awaited local debut of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 sci-fi/crime TV film, World on a Wire (Welt am Draht), which premiered at New York's Museum of Modern Art a year ago.

The end of the current program has seemed inevitable for two years, despite the blowback to the initial announcement. As someone who has worked alongside Govan observed, “When Michael makes up his mind, he doesn't change it.” 

“It's clearly a strategic plan on the part of the museum,” says Doug Cummings, a freelance film critic and co-founder of Save Film at LACMA, an activist organization founded outside LACMA in response to the revelation of the program's endangerment. “It's pretty clear the museum doesn't want to offer film repertory to the county public. They just don't want to be in that business. It's not part of their mission, which is to create an atmosphere that caters to a clientele based on endowments.”

Unlike MoMA, a film department is not in LACMA'S original charter, so if the latest change doesn't work it can be further tweaked, or even ultimately abandoned.

“It will be a huge cultural loss for our city,” Cummings says.

Contrary to the popular belief that LACMA's film program caters primarily to blue-haired matinee ladies and aging cinephiles, the Audrey Hepburn retrospective in late 2009 was packed with the same under-30 crowd that keeps a hipper house like the New Beverly Cinema thriving. Last year's Ernst Lubitsch series and this winter's road movies series also were very popular, and a promotion with Echo Park record store Origami Vinyl attracted new-generation filmgoers to the recent double feature of Barbet Schroeder's More and Paul Morrissey's Trash

A typical film aficionado, Cummings says he has hundreds of DVDs but still attends screenings at LACMA. He is a member of LACMA's Film Club, which was launched in 2009 as a conduit for support for the film program. But unbeknownst to most Film Club members, the $50 add-on to their LACMA annual membership went into a general fund and wasn't earmarked specifically for the film program.

While it is likely that Rondeau will stay on as the film program transitions, Birnie says he is departing on good terms. “They've offered me an early-retirement package that I'm quite grateful for,” he says. “I'm happy to move on. I will be consulting for them over the next year and I can say that there will be a film series through the summer.”  

Despite Birnie's satisfaction with his going-away gift, the question is why the change was necessary. LACMA'S frequently cited claim is that the film program was a money drain, producing a shortfall of $1 million over the past decade, or about $100,000 a year — a figure insiders dispute. 

“Melody Kanschat, the [retiring] museum president, told us last year that, for the first time, [the program] was making a profit,” Cummings says. “Anyone who goes to the screenings knows they're well attended.” 

After the 2009 shutdown threat, attendance increased from 25,000 patrons annually to 30,000, according to a June 2010 article in the L.A. Times. Insiders say LACMA's Bing Theater averages attendance of about 200 per screening, just under the 250-per-show average for the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, and more than could fit in the Silent Movie Theatre, which sells out at 170 seats.

Yet it is also true that the cost of film presentation has doubled over the past decade. In addition to steep rises in the cost of shipping prints, film companies that once charged a flat fee for showings began to demand a percentage of the house. 

Then there's the question of support from the film industry.  Martin Scorsese's impassioned plea to save LACMA's film program, published in the L.A. Times, certainly brought the issue the needed visibility. But while Scorsese has personally financed many preservation efforts, he can't be expected to be a one-man band. In an appearance in February 2010 at the Bing Theater, Clint Eastwood expressed his support, but again it wasn't followed up by a donation.

“We've wondered where the industry support is,” Cummings says, “but the movie business can barely think past opening weekend, much less [to] honoring its past.”

Govan alluded to this when, in a story published in the Weekly in September 2009, he claimed he intended to spark controversy by branding the film program as endangered. As writer Scott Foundas phrased it, “The film department had been dying … since 2006 and … attempts to raise funding had fallen on deaf ears. … [P]ushing LACMA's film department out on a ledge was, in effect, the only way to save it.”

This latest move will likely be greeted with skepticism, if not outrage, by the LACMA film faithful — those who could have aided a rescue earlier, as well as those who were in no position to crawl out on that ledge. Exactly what the future holds is unclear, but it's hard not to fear that film at LACMA could go the way of the great, extinct film festival FILMEX before it: yet another underfunded L.A. cultural institution left to slowly fade out of the public consciousness.

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