$50 million gift from Cheryl and Haim Saban gives Motion Picture Academy museum a major boost

The Motion Picture Academy's long-awaited museum still isn’t ready for its close-up — but it’s about to take a big step in that direction.

On Wednesday morning, at a press event in Los Angeles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is set to announce a $50 million gift from Cheryl and Haim Saban to the organization’s long-planned film museum. It’s the largest donation to the ambitious project to date and a major step toward the fulfillment of the academy’s fundraising goals.

The donation from the Sabans brings the academy roughly three-quarters of the way toward the completion of its $388 million capital campaign for the museum, which has been beset by repeated construction delays and is now slated to open in 2019. In recognition of the Sabans’ gift, the historic May Co. Building at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue that will be home to the museum will be renamed the Saban Building.

“This gift is a big jump in the capital campaign and we’re very excited about the fact that it’s bringing us within striking distance of its completion,” museum director Kerry Brougher told The Times in an interview.

As construction continues on the Renzo Piano-designed museum just west of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the academy is also announcing that Ron Meyer, the vice chairman of NBCUniversal, will serve as the chair of the museum’s board of trustees. Other members of the board have yet to be announced.

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Israeli American mogul Haim Saban built his Saban Entertainment production company into a juggernaut largely on the massive success of the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” franchise. Forbes estimates his worth at $3 billion. Along with his wife, Cheryl, he is one of L.A.’s most generous philanthropists, having endowed the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and helped finance the Saban Community Clinic that provides free and low-cost healthcare for the homeless, among other contributions. Saban is also a major political donor, giving $15 million to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and staunchly supporting Israel and its ties with the U.S.

In 2015, the Sabans made a significant donation to the television academy, which named its new Saban Media Center in their honor; it opened last year. Given the usual areas of focus of their philanthropic efforts, Haim Saban admits he initially resisted the idea of contributing to the film academy’s museum when he was first approached about it by Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, who hosted a fundraising dinner earlier this year.

“I said to him, ‘Listen, you’ve got sick kids, kids who need education — send them our way. Battered women, we’re there. But a museum is not in our sweet spot, so we’re not going to do anything there,’ ” Saban told The Times in an interview on Tuesday. “He said, ‘Well, come anyway.’ I said, ‘Fine.’ You know, a free meal — why not?”

After hearing an appeal that evening from Disney CEO Bob Iger, who chairs the museum’s capital campaign and is a friend of the Sabans, he began to come around. After discussing the idea with Cheryl, with whom he started the Saban Family Foundation in 1999, the two ultimately decided to get on board with a major gift, buttressing previous donations by industry luminaries such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, who each chipped in $10 million, and David Geffen, who donated $25 million (the museum’s largest theater will be named in his honor), as well as companies such as the Dalian Wanda Group, which donated $20 million.

“Listening to Bob’s speech was extremely helpful for us to truly comprehend what this was all about,” Saban said. “It’s a lot more than a museum. If you look at the plans for the activities there, you’ll see that it carries a significant educational angle about the world of film. And I think the building itself will be a big tourist attraction for our city.”

“We owe all our livelihood to the entertainment industry,” said Cheryl Saban. “Our whole family lives and works in this town, and the entertainment industry is what we’re about. When they described what’s going to happen at the museum, we became intrigued. When you consider that they’re going to be preserving and teaching about the art and craft of moviemaking and storytelling, we got very excited. There is nothing like it, and we decided, ‘Yes, we want to be a part of this.’”

As for the hand-wringing over the project’s repeated delays, she said wryly, “Have you ever done construction? You understand how there can be delays in construction. That doesn’t disturb me. It happens.”

For his part, Meyer says he jumped at the opportunity to be the first chair of the museum’s board. “I went and saw the site and saw the plans for what they’re doing and frankly it became irresistible,” he told The Times on Tuesday.

Despite the museum’s occasionally bumpy history — which has at times generated friction behind the scenes among the academy’s leadership amid concerns that its ballooning budget could drain resources from other academy programs — Meyer is confident that things are now firmly on track.

“I think what delayed it was making sure it was done right,” Meyer said, adding that he has already spoken with numerous people in the film industry and the philanthropic and business communities about joining the board of trustees. “The contributions that have been made are already extraordinary but I think we’ve only scratched the surface. There are many people who want to be a part of this, and when people see what’s being created, they’ll be more enthusiastic than ever about it.”

This summer, Brougher offered The Times a preview of the plans for the museum and a glimpse at the work in progress. On a late June morning, the site was busy with construction workers in hard hats working on and around the skeletal scaffolding of what is expected to be the museum’s most eye-popping attraction, as well as its most difficult construction challenge: an enormous sphere that will house a 1,000-seat theater and be capped with a glass-dome covered terrace.

In the months since, Brougher said, significant headway has been made both in the construction and in the conception of how the museum’s roughly 50,000 square feet of exhibition space will be used.

In addition to the museum’s rotating temporary exhibits, the second and third floors of the museum will be devoted to a permanent exhibition — which is being designed with the help of Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter — that will take visitors through the history of moviemaking, from the 19th century to the present and beyond. The exhibition will feature a combination of moving images, objects and constructed environments that, Brougher said, “will take you back in time and give you the feeling of the era that you’re supposed to be in.”

Upon exiting the exhibition, visitors will proceed to an area devoted to the history of the Academy Awards and an immersive Oscars experience complete with a red carpet. “It’ll be like you’re at the Oscars and you’ll be able to hold an Oscar and have your photograph taken,” Brougher said. “You’ll essentially get your own Oscar.”

With the gift from the Sabans and the naming of Meyer as chair of the museum’s board, the academy is clearly looking to put the museum’s growing pains behind it and look ahead to what it hopes will be its successful opening in 2019. That message will undoubtedly be amplified at Wednesday’s event, which will include remarks by the Sabans, Meyer, Iger and Brougher along with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, academy President John Bailey and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who chairs the academy board of governors’ museum committee.

“I’m thrilled,” Brougher said. “The construction is going really well. Every day I come, there’s another piece of it up. You can see it taking shape very quickly now.”

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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