Friday, September 18, 2009

Blaming the Audience

The grassroots protest that embroiled a segment of our community over the past month has resulted in the continuation of a museum program that occupies a unique historic position among Los Angeles's rich repertory film offerings. This has been a wonderful, even thrilling, self-defining moment for our city and its culture.

Not surprisingly, different takes on the “problem” and how to provide a solution to the problem are surfacing.

LACMA's current Hong Sang-soo series has been a misery, cries Scott Foundas in today's L.A. Weekly. Shame on the bad audience! Only one hundred customers per show! And yet, a 2002 screening of Hong's austere, black-and-white Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors enjoyed a full house at USC’s 340-seat Eileen Norris Cinema Theater.

What was different? USC’s Korean studies department, along with the Korean Film Council, marketed their event well. (The Council is also co-sponsoring LACMA's series but you wouldn’t know it from their current website, which mentions neither the series nor Hong's appearance.) The cross-selling opportunity with LACMA’s “Your Bright Future” South Korean art show should enhance audience, not diminish it.

But in any case, Mr. Govan and his team of LACMA executives have made it clear that ticket sales will not ensure the program’s future; only a patron providing a long-term endowment will save it from extinction. Film, now officially coexisting with other art forms at LACMA, will no longer be held to a different standard than the museum’s other programs that do not have to justify their existence by foot traffic. To which we say bravo!

LACMA is a museum. It’s not a commercial entity; it’s not a movie theater. It is a non-profit culture palace staging a wide range of exhibitions, some which generate solid income, and others which are subsidized, as it were, by the revenue generators. The presence of the film program as part of the mix, and indeed the make up and composition of the film program, replicate this model. Popular programs (e.g. Hollywood classics) are there to support and build audience appetite for lesser-known, challenging programs (e.g. Hong Sang-soo). This all seems pretty obvious and should go without saying.

The truth is that LACMA has gradually starved the film program of a significant marketing budget. The series had become a secret divulged only to museum members in a quarterly newsletter. Many young film students enrolled at USC and UCLA degree programs tell us they did not even know about the screenings. There is no print calendar or program material, other than a one-pager available at the Bing the night of the screening.

Save Film at LACMA believes the museum now has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage from our (copious and free) publicity to rebuild its program; given the outpouring of interest, why wouldn’t the film series enjoy strong participation if properly promoted? One theory is that it will fail because audience members are lazy petition-signers. We disagree. Shaming the client is not a good starting point. A more winning strategy would be to embrace our community and its love of film.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

'Save Film at LACMA Night' Celebrates Taiwanese Masterpiece on Sept. 26

Crisp new print of A City of Sadness, a film never released in the U.S. or on DVD, represents the importance of a vital film program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 16, 2009 — Save Film at LACMA, the grassroots group dedicated to the uninterrupted presence of curated classic and international film screenings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has designated the Sept. 26 screening of a new print of Taiwanese classic A City of Sadness as "Save Film at LACMA Night."

Save Film at LACMA activists, members, Facebook fans and petition-signers are invited to attend the Saturday evening screening to celebrate LACMA’s eight-month extension of the beloved program.

“We encourage all film lovers to share this special Saturday evening together. Our movement was spawned by a love of cinema and recognition of the unique historic relationship Los Angeles holds with this great art form,” says Save Film co-founder Debra Levine.

Museum Director Michael Govan recently told the Wall Street Journal that LACMA’s ongoing presentation of film, “will be realized if patrons and the public believe it worthwhile and contribute to its realization." Save Film at LACMA wishes to demonstrate that the series enjoys a robust and passionate audience when properly marketed. The group also wishes to use this occasion to express appreciation for the museum’s talented film programmers, Ian Birnie and Bernardo Rondeau.

About A City of Sadness

A City of Sadness (1989), from director Hou Hsiao-hsien, is a landmark of the Taiwanese New Cinema depicting the impact of the country’s history on ordinary lives. Despite great popular success in Taiwan and being voted one of the five greatest Chinese films of all time by the Hong Kong Film Awards, the film has never had a U.S. distributor nor has it been released on video or DVD. It has not been available for any public screening for almost a decade.

This brand new print, created at LACMA’s initiative, was financed by the Taipei Economic Cultural Office, and will subsequently tour important art-film outlets across North America, including Yerba Buena in San Francisco, Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, and cinematheques in Cleveland, Vancouver and Toronto, among other cities this fall.

The intimate epic traces a family’s story from 1945, when Japan ended its half-century occupation of the island-nation, to 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government retreated from the Chinese mainland to Taipei. The film is celebrated for its long takes and complex narrative structure.

“Hou Hsiao-hsien is widely regarded as one of the most important filmmakers of our era,” notes Save Film co-founder and film critic Doug Cummings. “This print would not exist -- or be screening in Los Angeles -- if not for LACMA’s film program. It’s a rare opportunity to see this masterpiece projected on the big screen.”

Derek Hsu, senior press officer at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office adds, “We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of a rarely shown film depicting a tragic chapter in Taiwanese history. It concerns what happened to the Taiwanese people when the Japanese occupation ended.”

About Save Film at LACMA

Save Film at LACMA is an open group; anyone can join via the Save Film at LACMA Facebook page or follow the savefilmlacma Twitter feed. News about the screening program is regularly posted on our blog,

Save Film at LACMA comprises key individuals concerned with improving the museum's film program, its marketing and financial support in order to protect a treasured program from future dismantling.

The grassroots movement enjoyed a great success when the public outcry over LACMA's July 28 suspension of the film program prompted museum officials to reconsider and extend the program through June 2010.

# # #

Media Contact:
Robin Rauzi, 323-219-1230

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lacma and the Cinéastes

After protests, a museum reprieves its film program


Call it the revenge of the film nerds, if you must. But jokes aside, the surprising triumph of several thousand mostly ordinary film lovers over the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has inspired grass-roots organizations everywhere. And so it should, for it demonstrates that sometimes those who wield cultural power must listen, and heed, the concerns of regular folk.

In this version of the David versus Goliath tale, the museum's scruffy, decades-old weekend film program—long regarded within the institution as less than a stepchild, if not quite an orphan—was headed for oblivion thanks to a decision by the museum's director and CEO, Michael Govan, who arrived at Lacma (as the museum is widely known) 3½ years ago after a dozen years running New York's Dia Art Foundation.

I have strong feelings about this program because my mother often took me there on weekend nights when I was young. Then, as now, patrons would gather in the 600-seat Bing Theater, the least changed part of the museum, which opened in 1965. In the dark-paneled Bing, with its backlit swag curtain and always-uncomfortable seats, I saw films starring Laurence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. And as my mother must have hoped, I fell hard, just as she had, for movies.

Back then, the legendary Ronald Haver—equal parts scholar and enthusiast—ran the program, and after he died in 1993 it was eventually taken over by Ian Birnie, who just lost his full-time job as the head of Lacma's film department after 13 years.

Mr. Birnie will remain at Lacma as a consultant through June 2010—and maybe even longer. He had previously been told that his services would no longer be needed after October of this year, when his series on Alain Resnais will have run its course.

What changed? An irate public, frankly.

News of Mr. Birnie's departure and his department's imminent demise were announced in a museum press release on July 28. The usual explanation for such things was offered: falling attendance, rising costs, a desire to start something bigger and better. But none of it rang true for the film program's longtime denizens, who knew that the operation was always run on a shoestring ($60,000 annually lately, excluding salaries) and that even years ago screenings only rarely sold out.

When the story broke in the Los Angeles Times the following morning, many were appalled to find a beloved fixture of their cultural lives suddenly imperiled. But a few went beyond clucking and acted, including two cinéastes who had never met. Both, not incidentally, were bloggers.

Doug Cummings, a graphic designer at Caltech, posted a short essay decrying the shuttering. Debra Levine, a dance critic, praised his cri de coeur and linked to it. And so was born—with a few intermediary steps—Save Film at Lacma, as grass roots an organization as can exist in the era of Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, both those social-networking sites proved pivotal in the campaign to reinstate Lacma's film program. So did an online petition that has attracted more than 2,700 signatures. Most of the names, including a significant number of film programmers and critics, didn't seem to faze Lacma. But some had the potential to draw the sort of attention any public institution would rather avoid, among them the Oscar-winning filmmakers Alexander Payne (No. 1,117), Martin Scorsese (No. 1,532) and Curtis Hanson (No. 1,606). Even Hugh Hefner (No. 1,829) joined the chorus.

On Aug. 10, Save Film at Lacma asked to see Mr. Govan. He consented, though a previously scheduled vacation delayed the meeting until Sept. 1. By then, Mr. Scorsese had written an open letter to him, published in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 12. Pressure was mounting. Aug. 26 found the museum crowing that donations of $150,000 from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Time Warner Cable had secured the program through the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2010.

But the so-called popcorn summit between Mr. Govan and his Save Film foes didn't prove quite the capitulation some had anticipated. The protesters had clearly won the battle—the weekend film program was given a reprieve and Mr. Birnie will select its content—but its long-term future remains murky. Mr. Govan, according to those present at the meeting, spoke in grand terms of a revivified film program, but with a focus on art rather than cinema. And he insisted that millions be raised to keep the program sacrosanct.

He also unveiled CineClub, which the museum refers to as "a new membership opportunity." Lacma's film screenings are still open to anyone who buys a ticket, though museum membership slightly reduces the cost. CineClub asks museum members to donate a further $50 earmarked for the film program. But there is little incentive to do so short of funding a worthy cause, especially because Mr. Govan has not committed to keeping the weekend film program beyond June, even with the influx of such funds.

More vexing—to both the program's fans and outsiders—is the dichotomy of Mr. Govan crying poverty while simultaneously raising funds for grand projects like Jeff Koons's "Train," which will dangle a full-scale, 70-foot-long replica of a 1943 steam locomotive from a 160-foot-tall crane. The cost of what is being reported as the most expensive work ever commissioned by a museum? Twenty-five million dollars.

With such lavish indulgences well beyond the planning stage, according to the Art Newspaper, it's hard to imagine that Mr. Govan and the museum's trustees couldn't raise the much smaller amount necessary to run Lacma's modest film program if they really wanted to. For now, the life of that program has been extended. But there could be strife again come June. L.A.'s film fans have already risen to the occasion. Now it's Mr. Govan's turn.

—Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cine-club round-up

In response to the launch of CineClub, LACMA’s new cinema-focused membership add-on, Kyle Westphal, Programming Chair Emeritus, Doc Films at University of Chicago who attended the Popcorn Summit, provides comparative data on similar film memberships around the country.

Westphal concludes that LACMA should be praised for taking the initiative to quantify public support for its film programming; if a significant number of members sign up for this premium it will certainly send a strong message to trustees, fundraisers, and friends of the museum that film has real and substantial support among its core constituents. This action represents a level of commitment beyond buying a ticket, but (well) short of endowing the program.

The lowest individual membership level LACMA currently offers (other than the $25 annual student membership) is a $90 tax-deductible 'Active' Membership. This $90 contribution already accords members a discount for film and music programs, so the $50 CineClub premium cannot offer that. Its appeal lies in 'priority ticketing,' an e-newsletter, and, most importantly, the promise that "dues will help support film events, outreach, and efforts to increase overall awareness of LACMA's film department."

Whether that's worth $50 to museum members remains to be seen.

It's not an unprecedented move, as many museums with substantial film programs offer something similar. For the sake of comparison:

Museum of Modern Art in New York offers a staggering deal: Annual memberships as low as $75 give you free admission to every film screening and MoMA presents several a day.

Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers a stand-alone Friends of Film buy-in for $80 that gives you six free admissions, invitations to sneak previews and special Friends of Film events, and, again, an e-newsletter.

Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio--an avowed model for Govan--doesn't offer a specific way to support the film program, but a $50 membership includes four free film tickets and other perks.

Cleveland Cinematheque at the Cleveland Institute of Art offers a $35 Cinematheque membership which gives a $2 discount on all film tickets.

George Eastman House in Rochester, New York offers a number of options. Museum members (the lowest entry level is $50, $35 for students) receive a $2 discount on all film tickets, and $15 discount on the already discounted Take-10 pass. Additionally, museum members can add $200 to become part of the Dryden Film Society, which promises: "you are invited to hush-hush private screenings; you can shmooze with visiting artists, and you have privileged access to the knowledge of curatorial staff, which covers just about every facet of film history you ever wanted to know about (and more)."

Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has a robust film program and a study collection. No specific film support option, but a basic $60 gives up to a 50% discount on event tickets, which presumably includes film.

Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has its own $50 membership. One of its perks is actually a $10 discount on a general Art Institute membership! Also: $5 admission to all films, $4 admission to the Film Center lecture series, and four free popcorns. Art Institute membership offers no Film Center benefits.

Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive members ($50) receive discounted film admissions. Their Cineaste Circle (minimum donation: $1,000) offers you a chance to "share your passion during Cineaste programs focused on films and filmmaking and with the actors, directors and cinematographers who regularly visit the Pacific Film Archive." You also receive two invitations to filmmaker events, recognition on the PFA donor wall and in its newsletter, and a panoply of other general benefits.

In conclusion, Westphal agrees with Michael Govan that the introduction of a CineClub membership option is a step in the right direction. CineClub will bring LACMA's membership options in line with other museums with strong film programs. CineClub memberships alone, however, cannot underwrite the film program, nor were they designed to.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Save Film at LACMA Learns LACMA’s Intentions at Popcorn Summit

At Sept. 1 meeting Museum reveals its renewed search for funding to reinstate a full film program.

LOS ANGELES, Ca. – Sept 2, 2009 – In an 80-minute meeting with Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, representatives of Save Film at LACMA campaign were told that significant donor support – not ticket sales – is the determining criterion for ensuring the program’s nebulous future.

Save Film at LAMCA, a grassroots group that is vigorously campaigning to preserve the museum’s 41-year-old film program, presented Mr. Govan with its petition bearing 2,700 signatures. The museum abruptly announced on July 28 that weekend screenings would end in October, but reversed its decision when a broad outpouring of local, national, and international protest compelled LACMA to find stop-gap funding. The film program now has a temporary extension through June 2010.

“The prognosis for film at LACMA is by no means guaranteed,” said Debra Levine, who heads the coalition. “We learned that Mr. Govan wishes to reconfigure film as an endowed department coexisting with other art forms at the museum. That’s wonderful. But film will only enjoy a long-term presence at the museum’s Bing Theater if the director is able to secure significant, high-profile donations or patronage. Without such a rescue package from an external source, there will be no film program in one year. Mr. Govan unambiguously warned us of this possibility.”

In his meeting with the activist group, Mr. Govan thanked Save Film at LACMA for raising the alarm about the endangered film program, and said that the headline-grabbing issue – the story has received national media attention – has opened doors to potential corporate and philanthropic supporters. Soon after the meeting he specified to the Los Angeles Times that $5 million to $10 million in donations will be required.

The “popcorn summit” between Mr. Govan and Save Film at LACMA included several experts in repertory film programming, including Shannon Kelley of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Kyle Westphal, formerly of the film society Doc Films; Margot Gerber, director of publicity and promotions at the American Cinematheque; repertory film executive Jared Sapolin; and Michael Schlesinger, a veteran executive of classic film distribution.

Also following the meeting, LACMA launched CineClub, a $50 add-on to museum membership. But it was clear from the financial figures raised in the meeting that such low-level support will not turn the tide. “It was presented to us as a done deal, with the press release written and ready to go out,” noted Schlesinger.

“The fact that LACMA’s CineClub press release implies audience members are not loyal enough unless they ‘follow the examples set by corporate donors’ is another development that leads us to question LACMA’s interest in addressing the concerns of the community,” added Westphal.

The CineClub plan also bears a marked contrast to one of the nation’s most successful museum film programs -- that of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in which museum members are automatically given free admission to daily film screenings.

Programming content for the re-envisioned film program is still undetermined, although Mr. Govan affirmed Hollywood history should figure in the repertory of a Los Angeles institution. He expressed an eagerness to introduce cutting edge video and digital art into the mix as well. He alluded to outdoor screenings in the park adjacent to the County Museum and he cited the integrated gallery screenings of the “Dali: Painting & Film” exhibition as a successful model.

“The museum’s pursuit of a grand vision for film funded by major donors marginalizes the average Angeleno’s stake in the cherished and longstanding program,” said Save Film at LACMA co-founder Doug Cummings. “The CineClub plan is an expensive option for common moviegoers who will prove reluctant to donate funds to a program that is still largely undefined.”

The future of Ian Birnie, LACMA’s internationally acclaimed film programmer, remains in the hands of museum leaders. Birnie lost his full-time position when the program was initially canceled, but was later reengaged on a contract basis.

“It is important to maintain a sense of urgency,” said Levine. “Because of the outcry from impassioned Angelenos, the museum has, for the moment, made film a fundraising priority. Mr. Govan has a strong track record as a fundraiser, so we hope he seizes this opportunity to secure the existing program and then grow it from there.”

Media Contact:
Robin Rauzi, 323-219-1230