The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has aroused considerable and well-deserved controversy in the wake of its 28 July announcement that it would be shuttering its film program after 41 years. Senior matinees may remain and a nebulous thing called “artist-created films” might return at a later date.
The program’s financial loss--$100,000 annually (though some well-connected sources peg this closer to $70,000) and $1 million over the last decade—is cited by Museum Director Michael Govan as the reason for dismantling the one-man Film Department. Having run a repertory cinema that screened a different film every night, those figures strike me as frankly trumped up for a program that runs a few nights a week and often offsets rental and shipping costs of international material through third party sponsorship. Might they also include building maintenance costs dropped onto the Film Department’s balance sheet? Is programmer Ian Birnie’s salary counted as a loss?
This raises other questions, of course: would curators of painting, sculpture, or even photography face similar pressures? Would their departments be shuttered on the basis of low foot traffic? Would a six-figure shortfall in those instances be called a loss or the cost of doing business? Calling it the former is already something of an ideological concession. Operating expenses are precisely that—the cost of an institution fulfilling its mission, in this case “[t]o serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of significant works of art from a broad range of cultures and historical periods.” Which the film program does.
But let’s return for a minute to the matter of money. Institutions around the country that rely in large part on donations and endowments for their operating budgets—universities, art museums, and the like—are certainly in dire straits in the current economy. Donations have dramatically decreased and many endowments have lost a large portion of their value or have become frozen, meaning that their interest cannot be tapped to cover budget shortfalls. Layoffs are common in the non-profit sector these days.
For all that, $100,000 is still a comparatively small sum for a museum. Insurance policies for so-called blockbuster exhibitions exceed it many times over. But even assuming that $100,000 is the correct figure, it still constitutes less than two-tenths of one percent of the Museum’s $74 million annual operating budget. Without being too crude about it, LACMA does not feel that film screenings constitute even two-tenths of one percent of its mission.
Which is to say that LACMA does not feel that film belongs at its museum. No major component of a museum would be sacrificed in a time of fiscal difficulty if it were not valued in the first place.
Ignore for a moment Govan’s lavish salary ($6 million over five years, plus benefits) and focus instead on the language found in the recent Los Angeles Times article that disclosed this salary:
"The reputation of LACMA was not a good one," said Bobby Kotick, a trustee who heads the company Activision Blizzard, maker of the video game Guitar Hero. "There was definitely skepticism whether L.A. was committed to building a cultural institution that would be on par with the Met and MOMA. . . . Compensation was one way to overcome that."
Indeed. And it follows that another way of overcoming this reputation was axing an extraordinarily cheap program that obviously does not have the approval of the trustees. Such an action demonstrates exactly where the Museum’s priorities lie and cannot be interpreted otherwise.
As repertory cinemas go, LACMA was quite successful, recently hosting four sold-out screenings of Carlos Reygadas’s austere but beautiful masterpiece Silent Light, the only thing resembling a ‘run’ that that film received in Los Angeles.
Govan has spoken of finding a donor to underwrite the film program. Resentful letter writers and blog commenters have advanced the idea that Hollywood studio heads or rascals like Martin Scorsese should pony up instead of being typical showbiz hypocrites. (In the case of Scorsese, this is quite a charge; his Film Foundation dispersed over $1.4 million for film preservation in 2008 alone.) These sentiments and overtures are disingenuous.
In 2008 LACMA reported over $129 million in gifts, including over $6.5 million in unrestricted gifts. (These are the donations that are mercifully, as the name implies, unrestricted and can be used to meet general operating expenses without the stipulations placed on the great majority of donations.) Doubtless LACMA has already found urgent needs to which these unrestricted funds may happily be applied. Even in this economy, though, $100,000 funneled to the film program is a drop in the bucket. But the point remains and by now defies credulity:
The future of the film program at LACMA is not at the mercy of individual donors and their heroic deeds. The dismantling of the film program, which requires a truly miniscule portion of the Museum’s operating budget, is not an unfortunate accident but instead an ideological prerogative.
What can be done about this?
In the short term, there is a petition online that presently has close to 2,500 signatures.
The effort is sponsored by a blog, savefilmatlacma.blogspot.com. It has an affiliated facebook group and twitter feed.
Given LACMA’s obvious mistrust of film, however, I fear that these efforts might not be sufficient. This is not a slight towards the petition, nor the blog, but rather a call for something larger.
As demonstrated by the national (and indeed, international) rebukes of this move, the implications of the dismantling of LACMA’s film program are wider than Los Angeles County or the L.A. repertory scene. Articles forecasting the demise of repertory cinema are not uncommon. The venues concerned are often left to fend for themselves, proclaiming that movies are better on a big screen or with a crowd than they are at home on video. These aspects are important and surely the most easily-voiced refutations of that “Why can’t you just get it on DVD and shut up?” canard.
Far fewer column inches are given over to a more complicated but better argument, one that entails an understanding of repertory film infrastructure. Simply stated, no studio is getting rich from circulating 35mm prints to LACMA and its cohorts. There is obviously some value in preserving corporate assets for posterity and future revenue and all the major studios have acceded to this reality. DVD, BluRay, satellite, and download are significant revenue streams. But modern telecine units—the machines responsible for digitizing film material—are calibrated to get the best results from pre-print material: camera originals or restored internegatives or low-contrast master positives. Which is a roundabout way of saying that a film can be preserved and readied for digital distribution channels without the luxury of making a release print for nominal circulation at a relative handful of theaters. Some studios have essentially turned a blind eye to this market altogether, proceeding with expensive digital restorations without bothering to return a single circulating film print to the repertory market.
We are today able to go to venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center or Film Forum or CineFamily (and maybe LACMA) because most studios still possess at least one individual who believes in supporting a library of titles in 35mm. This is a particular and perilous thing and in no way a given.
The situation for foreign films is even worse. American rights to screen films like this are often renewed on a seven-year basis; at the end of that term, it’s often stipulated that a distributor not renewing the rights must destroy all prints of a given title. The implications of mounting attrition are obvious—and hence many foreign classics are also invisible on film screens, unless a print is imported at heavy cost by a wealthy venue, as sometimes happens. (To pick a particularly egregious example, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse do not circulate in 35mm in this country. Nor do any Mikio Naruse films. Nor Ordet, nor Stalker, nor Le Plaisir. The list goes on. It’s not the fault of American stalwarts like Janus or Kino, who must wrangle with the impossible demands of foreign rightsholders and the virtual disappearance of the specialty laboratory.)
Literally every venue capable of screening archival prints with professional standards is essential to the whole delicate infrastructure of repertory cinema. These should be the terms of the argument. We cannot rely solely on appeals based on “the big screen,” “real movie theater butter,” “the communal experience”—ultimately there are ways to circumvent those. After all, these pleas could easily be addressed by showing projected DVDs in a public space, which does rather less to support the kind of infrastructure I’m talking about.
Simply stated, the whole history of cinema is not available on DVD. It cannot be studied adequately in the comforts of one’s home. And that home repertory is no substitute for a curated program that responds to and is influenced by local sensibilities and tempers. It has a character distinct from the nation’s Netflix queue.
This is a hard message but perhaps not so hard. It is broadly analogous to ‘Buy Local,’ a slogan of informed consumerism that is easily understood and practiced by a substantial portion of our population. It is implicitly understood that a purchase represents not only an exchange of money for goods but an affirmative vote for a certain way of living and all of the productive infrastructure that will sustain it.
In the same way, repertory film-goers cannot be motivated by nostalgia alone. They must be made to recognize that they are stakeholders sustaining a wider movement greater than any individual institution. Museums, of course, could not mount lavish exhibitions or comprehensive retrospectives without collective action—touring programs, collaborations with peer institutions, and the like. It’s the same story for film.
Returning to the matter of LACMA, this argument is already being made to a degree. Critics have noted that it is particularly cruel to strip Los Angeles, the film capital of the world, of one of its major film venues. It is a matter of civic pride. It is a local outrage with national repercussions.