On a recent weekend in Los Angeles, avid and adventuresome moviegoers had a menu of screening choices that included a 1950s Mexican sci-fi film, a tripped-out 1970s insect documentary, glittery camp and fantasy action-adventure from the 1980s, plus a double bill of lesbian vampire pictures.
Also among those choices was Jean-Pierre Melville's black-and-white 1961 film "Leon Morin, Priest" starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva in a heartbreaking, disarmingly steamy yet chaste tale of unrequited romance between a widow and a local priest set against the backdrop of the German occupation of France during WWII. A late showing of the film played to a hundred or so people at the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a remarkably diverse crowd of varied ages, income brackets and nationalities. The little-known find, never before released in America, played to about 800 people total in four shows over two nights.
This fall, those cineastes may be out of luck, given the recent announcement by LACMA that it will be placing its weekend film programs -- a carefully curated mix of Hollywood classics, foreign language and art-house fare -- on indefinite hiatus. LACMA Director Michael Govan has cited declining attendance and a budget deficit of $1 million over 10 years as reasons for the cut, prompting an the uproar and an online petition signed by filmmakers, critics, programmers, industry professionals and regular moviegoers from around the globe.
The museum's action has shined a spotlight on so-called specialized exhibition in this city, the epicenter of the country's filmmaking business. On the one hand, if there is to be more to film culture than box-office statistics and celebrity gossip as well as a broader appreciation of filmmaking from around the world, institutions such as LACMA must by definition be a part of that mission of cultural education. If not, the frequently heard joke about watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on a cellphone may soon come true.
On the other hand, a fairly robust alternative movie screening community has been growing in the region and could help fill the void caused by LACMA -- if audiences truly want to get out and attend interesting programming. Some programmers also worry that younger audiences are losing the love of challenging cinema that was a hallmark of educated moviegoers in the '60s and '70s.
The changes at LACMA, which was regarded as a national model for such programming, come at a time when exhibitors already have a lot to deal with. Even commercial art-house theaters are struggling, with numerous recent theater closures, including the NuWilshire, Festival and National, and a general downturn in art-house box office. Meanwhile, award-winning films from prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Sundance struggle to secure American theatrical distribution and hold screens.
Organizations such as the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the American Cinematheque, the New Beverly Cinema and the Cinefamily, as well as the Getty Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all screen some variation on the mix of classic Hollywood, foreign-language and art-house fare that is shown at LACMA, each venue having its own identity and place on the Los Angeles filmgoers' map. While there may still be some changes to LACMA's plans -- all eyes are on the scheduled "popcorn summit" of Sept. 1 with the organization Save Film at LACMA -- the people behind those other local venues are girding themselves for the new future of specialized exhibition.
The ripple effect
"How can this not give us pause?" asked Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. "Any time a major film venue like this shutters, it really means an impoverishment for the whole city and film audiences. So even though LACMA was in some sense a competitor, we never saw each other that way. If they had great audiences it could only help build our audiences."
"It's a loss," said Hadrian Belove, head programmer of the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. "The lack of their programs is going to be really noticeable. We are going to lose a lot of programming from Los Angeles. I don't know who's going to be able to step up and bring those programs here."
The final programs still scheduled at LACMA include eight films by contemporary Korean director Hong Sang-soo and a series spotlighting revered veteran French director Alain Resnais, exactly the kinds of films that may easily go unscreened in a post-LACMA world. As with the critically exalted 2007 Mexican film "Silent Light," the recent release of "Leon Morin, Priest" received a weeklong run in New York City but screened in Los Angeles for only two days at the museum. Losing the relative backstop of LACMA's film program for certain films will potentially put Angelenos at the disadvantage of not being part of larger national and international cultural conversations.
"The shame is, I really felt they're doing this at a moment L.A. is having a renaissance of repertory cinema," said the Cinefamily's Belove. "People are excited about films and are learning how to do it in L.A. There was an assumption for a long time that it was too difficult to go out, traffic is bad, and it's a cultural wasteland. L.A. has a really low self-esteem, and that's not really true right now. I'm sensing people want to go out more, and they're finding ways to do it."
Traveling film series are often curated and produced by programmers around the globe and sent on the road to like-minded institutions in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle and Houston, just like fine-art museum exhibitions.
"The bigger issue is the loss of the culture of seeing films on a big screen," said Margot Gerber, director of publicity and marketing at the American Cinematheque, which screens at both the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. "There needs to a groundswell of support for movie theaters, commercial or noncommercial. We are rapidly losing the experience of going to a big single-screen theater to see a movie."
Specialized exhibitors continue to grapple with how to renew and retain their audiences. LACMA's Govan has stated that the soon-to-be shuttered weekend film program has been averaging 250 people a show, a number other venues around town would rate a success. There is the struggle to appeal to younger audiences without alienating the older patrons who still loyally attend, alongside the issue of balancing reliable known quantities with fresh discoveries that may not have the same immediate draw.
There are the classically banal L.A. issues of traffic and parking. Even something such as the recently weak dollar, which has increased shipping costs for film prints from overseas, can at times limit what can be shown.
Luring a new audience
Despite Belove's optimisim, UCLA's Horak sees "slippage" in audiences from even five years ago, no doubt affected by the increased availability of films on TV, DVDs and such operations as Netflix. Michael Torgan, owner, manager and programmer of the New Beverly Cinema, said that films that may have brought in 100 people when screened 10 years ago now only bring in 40 to 50 people.
"There's a new generation who needs to be exposed to classic cinema before they're going to develop an appetite for some of the more rarefied things," said Gerber. "There are definitely younger people who want to see things. If young people absolutely were not interested, we would just have to close."
There are positive signs of life, however. Directors or actors turning up for introductions and Q&As; help boost attendance, as does anything to transform a screening from a run-of-the-mill show into a unique, unmissable event that cannot be replicated in one's living room or on a computer monitor. One unexpected upside of the DVD boom is that the physical film prints themselves can be better than ever, often newly struck by studios and rights-holders. Though it may not be to the levels of Parisian cine-mania -- where on good weeks 300 films may screen -- Los Angeles film culture remains defiantly vibrant.
"Currently we are doing very well in L.A. in terms of the scale and variety of things to see week in and week out," said Dennis Cozzalio, who runs the movie blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. "It's not only vital programming, but the theaters really are great places to see movies. Beyond just a willingness to show things, they're great cinematic experiences."
Recently the UCLA Film and Television Archive, screening at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, sold out five shows of a restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 "The Red Shoes." And on an evening when by coincidence the New Beverly Cinema and American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre both programmed a triple bill of Indiana Jones pictures, each sold out -- a total of more than 600 tickets.
Whether LACMA reverses its position or not, for casual but curious cinema-goers in L.A. yearning for something beyond the latest releases at the megaplexes, the situation might provide a "teachable moment," a reminder that there is a lively film scene in Los Angeles with the caveat that people have to show up -- use it or lose it.
"I think it's absurd and reprehensible that a city that thinks of itself as the world capital of cinema can't support a couple of nonprofit art houses," Belove said. "We should just have the best film programming in the world, better than Paris or New York. It doesn't make you a snob to like good stuff."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Where specialized cinema is still special
A quick guide to some of the leading cinema programs in town and their upcoming screenings.
The American Cinematheque
Running two venues -- the Aero Theater (1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica) and the Egyptian Theater (6712 Hollywood Blvd.) -- the Cinematheque is known mostly for movie-geek-favored genre movies and classics, but its screenings do branch out to foreign-language films and other unexpected corners.
(323) 466-FILM, www.americancinematheque.com
Peter Bogdanovich's Picture Shows, Sept. 10-12
Grand Master: The Films of Stanley Kubrick, Sept. 17-20
Technicolor Dreams, Sept. 20-26
The relative newcomer to the scene, the Cinefamily (611 N. Fairfax Ave.), formerly the Silent Movie Theatre, has added a charge of excitement and discovery to the revival scene, digging up lots of under-screened oddities and overlooked gems. A youthful crowd and energy makes most every screening seem like a party.
(323) 655-2510, www.cinefamily.org
British Gangsters, Fridays in Sept.
Mondo Macabro: Third World Exploitation, Saturdays in Sept.
Doug Aitken, Sept. 20
UCLA Film and Television Archive
In a post-LACMA landscape, this will be some of the most dependably highbrow programming in town, although recent series featuring Mexican sci-fi and female exploitation directors may put a spin on that. Its Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Blvd.) is one of the best venues in L.A.
(310) 206-FILM, www.cinema.ucla.edu
African-American Film Pioneers, Sept. 11-27
Encounter With Iran, Oct. 9-16
British Film Noir, Oct. 17-26
The New Beverly Cinema
One of the few remaining old-fashioned rep-houses in the country, the New Beverly (7165 W. Beverly Blvd.) turns over its double bills three times a week. Recently it's occasionally had series programmed by directors, including such names as Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Rian Johnson and Joe Dante.
(323) 938-4038, www.newbevcinema.com
"The Inglorious Bastards" (1978) and "The Dirty Dozen," Aug. 30, 31 and Sept. 1
"Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo," Sept. 12
Truckathon with "White Line Fever," "Road Games," "C.B. Hustlers," Sept. 19