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.


  1. I attended Turning Gate and Tale of Cinema last night. Is it entirely possible that the Hong Sang-soo films are being underattended because they're... um... boring as hell?