22 August 2009

LACMA and the Crisis of Repertory Cinema Advocacy

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.


Alex R. said...

As a native to Los Angeles and a lover of film, this little jeremiad rings true.

Doug said...

This is the most succinct and informed article I've read on this LACMA travesty--bravo.

Amanda said...

I was also involved with DOC Films at the UofC, and have often thought about it in light of LACMA's decision a month ago.
What did it cost to run DOC? I know we relied on a tremendous amount of volunteer labor, but we still had to pay for the prints, the shipping, new lightbulbs for the projectors, etc.

Anonymous said...

If the LACMA trustees do not consider film worthy as art, what do they consider worthy?

This is not a rhetorical question. What, exactly, is supposed to be so much better than motion pictures?

K. A. Westphal said...

@ Amanda:

Doc's budget fluctuated with attendance and administration support. Suffice it to say, I don't work for Doc anymore and I don't know if I'm allowed to disclose this kind of thing.

The major costs for any repertory cinema are print rental, shipping, labor, upkeep, and advertising. I frankly don't think it's possible to run one unless it's underwritten by a major institution (like LACMA) or the managers can find a work-around for one of those major components. In the case of Doc, it had no labor expenses because it was totally volunteer-run, which allowed film rentals and shipping an outsized portion of the budget. For venues affiliated with a major film archive, they can often fill holes in the schedule by screening their own prints, provided they pay a nominal rights fee. (That said, some archives have agreements with the studios wherein they store material owned by the studio in exchange for the right to screen those prints free of charge, among other things. Still other archives believe they have this right but have no contract to back them up.)

When gas hit $4 a gallon, every major courier jacked up their shipping rates and added fuel surcharges. In a case like that, Doc was hurt because there aren't many prints left at the Waukegan depot (which I hear has since closed), which meant we had to pay shipping to and from L.A. or N.J. on every print. Conceivably a rep venue on the east coast could limit their shipping expenses by programming from the heaps of prints at Bonded in Fort Lee. A place like LACMA could run many programs from the studios' Hollywood vaults.

Similarly, a venue is willing to screen things on 16mm (often the only option for avant-garde work) then costs can be lowered, too.

It's always a combination of factors based on what's right for the venue and its audience.

Andy Rector said...

This frank speaking piece is much appreciated. Good intentions for cinema are running low among those in power. As Renoir said, Hollywood is less about making money, more about spending it. Perhaps Govan has a similar attitude and loathing for humble small potato programs; directors of his ilk have absolutely no understanding of the "delicate infastructure of repertory cinema" and need to be educated of it. The film program will never bring the decadent glory of massive expenditure, but maybe its the spending of more money that should be appealed to. In any case, its clear to me that a bigger budget for the film program should be the demand, -- more resources, not less or the same as before the crisis.

Jason Guthartz said...

Excellent piece, Kyle.

"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. ... Simply stated, the whole history of cinema is not available on DVD."

True, but can't the "unavailability" argument be circumvented as well? As you point out, circulating prints of many of the greatest films do not exist, and more and more of those films are being made available via DVD.

The "locality" argument is good, but it doesn't address the specific need for quality 35mm/16mm print projection.

I think there's a much deeper cultural issue here, more pronounced in popular culture but more problematic within film culture. LACMA would never close their modern painting wing due to the availability of posters of Pollocks and Rothkos, and the public wouldn't accept it either. So there's a basic question of where the "art" and aesthetic value is seen to reside within a particular medium. If film is seen as primarily a story-telling medium, then who cares if you're watching something on 35mm, TV, or DVD. If film is seen, per Brakhage, as "on-off illumination of individual still images in sequence," that creates a different attitude towards the medium and a deeper appreciation of the need to see films in their "original" (print issues notwithstandng). So if film aesthetics remain under-appreciated even within elite film culture -- reflected, for example, in the ways many of the greatest films continue to be marginalized and ghettoized by the "avant-garde" label (a particularly egregious practice among film culture elites) -- then how can we expect more general arts institutions like LACMA to recognize the need to promote, preserve, and provide access to "the whole history of cinema"?

"$100,000 is still a comparatively small sum for a museum."

Isn't film undervalued at such institutions precisely because it is so cheap? There being no "original" as there is in painting or sculpture, a film print can't be commodified. And to the extent that a work's value in the art market influences (and can be influenced by) it's value in art culture, I'm afraid film will always be the black sheep (cheap whore?) in the art family. Which is why the whole repertory system -- even calling it "repertory" is a weird concession to market logic -- is being sustained on life support by those few individuals (such as yourself) who remain dedicated to the medium rather than the market.

Mark Elliot said...

I agree with the post in its entirety and agree that it is crucial to reframe how we think about repertory cinema as a creative ecosystem: 1) if not actively maintained it withers; it requires our participation as cultural stewards and not merely as consumers (speaking to the nostalgia issue); and perhaps most provocatively it can find an analog in the embrace of the locavore food movement that values not only quality but personal responsibility. With cinema as with food, those veggies are good for you; they not only nourish the body and mind, they support the infrastructure that makes quality possible. The alternative is the cinema equivalent of processed food: easy to produce, cheap to consume, and ultimately unsatisfying and in large quantities unhealthy.

Unknown said...

I like to post articles on your blog. They are very useful and detailed. Hope you have more health to continue to develop this blog. Please visit my movie blog when you have time. Thank you
365 movies
Eve Lindley biography
Review Insidious 4