To Gary Essert, the announcement Thursday of plans for an American Cinematheque as part of the restored Pan Pacific Center in the Beverly-Fairfax area represents the culmination of what has amounted to almost a spiritual quest.
"I feel kind of numb when I talk about it," the cinematheque's artistic director said of the plan he and some colleagues first envisioned 15 years ago. "It's like we're building a temple of some kind. Movies and video are like a scrapbook of the human race. This place will honor that process."
The $10-million facility ($1 million has been raised already) is intended as a permanent, year-round movie buff's paradise, with two film theaters, a video theater and multimedia performance lab. Adjacent to the theaters will be a cinema bookstore, a cafe and an expansive lobby designed to encourage debates over the merits of, say, a black-and-white American classic or a Yugoslav animated film.
If everything goes on schedule, the American Cinematheque will open in a blaze of Streamline Moderne glory (the architectural style to which the 1935 Pan Pacific landmark will be returned as part of the $22-million face lift) in January, 1987. A 140-to-165-room hotel, another restaurant, offices and retail shops will also be part of the complex.
Now 46 and still dressed in his trademark black-on-black clothes, Essert has lost little of the cocky self-assurance that aided him in founding the Los Angeles International Film Exposition and keeping it going through 14 sometimes-troubled years. Essert was ousted as Filmex artistic director in 1983, an action resulting from charges that he bungled the finances and operations of the nonprofit film festival.
"Fate decides many things," Essert said in a reflective moment earlier this week in his expansive office in the former Janss mansion off Sunset Boulevard near UCLA. "At one point, things seem terrible, but you endure it and it leads to something else. That's what happened here."
Essert will be the artistic director of the American Cinematheque, but a search is already on for a managing director who will supervise the organization's operations and budget. Both Essert, who said he is currently drawing no salary for his efforts, and board of directors co-chairman Kenneth Kleinberg, a leading entertainment lawyer, insist that the cinematheque will not be a replay of the Essert era at Filmex. "This is not a private placement for Gary Essert," Kleinberg said in a phone interview.
Still, Essert's enthusiasm for the cinematheque is irrepressible and understandable. Modeled on the National Film Theatre in London, which is run by the British Film Institute, the cinematheque also borrows its inspiration from Henri Langlois' famous Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. (Essert said the American Cinematheque will be dedicated to the memory of Langlois, who died in 1977.)
With an abundance of films shown at Los Angeles area theaters, the County Museum of Art, the American Film Institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the UCLA Film Archives, the idea of yet another facility designed to show movies might seem redundant.
Essert quickly and emphatically disagreed. "A cinematheque has to be several things at once," he explained. "This institution will not be similar to anything else. We'll be dedicated to serving the general public. The main purpose is not just to get people to watch movies, but to allow them a chance to intermingle, connect, meet each other and the film makers.
"Our programming philosophy is much more broad (than what anyone else is doing)," Essert continued. "What we're talking about is programming from movies available from throughout the entire world." (Board co-chairman Kleinberg, who will share duties with "Tootsie" director Sydney Pollack, also stressed the cinematheque's interests in classic American movies. Kleinberg said he hopes to enlist the support of the major movie studios in striking new prints from films in their vaults so that young people can be exposed to Hollywood's celluloid history.)
The cinematheque's two theaters will seat 550 and 250, respectively, and will be equipped with all film projection formats and the capability for simultaneous foreign translations, meaning movies can be shown without subtitles. A separate theater and multimedia lab will showcase video presentations, an area Essert said has been particularly neglected in Los Angeles.
Although Essert and his staff will originate 50% of the cinematheque's own programming, the rest will come from unique partnerships that have been forged with the British Film Institute, the Cinematheque Francaise and the New York Museum of Modern Art's film department. There will also be a special emphasis on showcasing the cinematic treasures from the UCLA Film Archives, a practice that Essert hopes will help raise money for film restoration.
"These are the first formal sharing arrangements many of these organizations have made with anyone else," Essert said. "At the same time, we'll send them what we develop."
Essert said a major fund-raising effort is under way, targeted at well-heeled individuals in the film, television and recording industries.
Essert estimated that $5 million will be needed to build the nonprofit, tax-exempt facility, with another $5 million earmarked for an endowment fund. The interest earned from the fund, combined with ticket sales, membership fees and retail revenues from the cafe and bookstore, will help pay for the cinematheque's estimated $1.6-million yearly operating budget.
How much competition will there be for charitable and institutional grants? Plenty, according to Essert. "What everyone asks me during this start-up period is, 'How does this relate to other institutions?' "
His answer, Essert said, is simple: "The annual Filmex operating budget is $1.2 million each year. For $1.6 million, we'll have a permanent facility. If it comes to a choice of where your money goes, you give it to the institution where your buck goes the furthest."
(Essert hastened to add that he hopes Filmex will find a permanent home in the cinematheque.)
A current "founder's campaign" is also under way, soliciting minimum gifts of $10,000 entitling benefactors to recognition plaques in the building's lobby and admission to a special lounge before and after screenings. Kleinberg added that he plans to meet with the chairman or chief executive of all the major movie companies in the coming weeks to elicit contributions and declarations of support.
Industry backing will be a key to whatever success the cinematheque may enjoy, Essert and Kleinberg acknowledged.
A separate board of trustees will meet infrequently but is stacked with prominent industry names, including directors Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, singer/songwriter Barry Manilow and actress Candice Bergen.
"There are people in the industry who really believe in the project," Essert said. "They think it's important and necessary, and in the right place in being located in Los Angeles. It will create a synthesis of excitement and magic between what the movies are to people around the world and what they are to film makers. One thing this facility will do is start some communication between the mainstream film and TV community and the world cinema."
Essert said that has long been one of his goals, one that remains intact through the disappointments and failures in previous attempts to set up the cinematheque at the Preview House in West Hollywood, the Aquarius Theatre and the Huntington Hartford Theatre in Hollywood. Plans to combine sponsorship of the cinematheque with the American Film Institute and later the Center Theatre Group also had to be abandoned.
Now Essert feels that everything has worked out for the best. "I'm convinced that this is what I was put here to do," he said.