Los Angeles County Museum of Art cancels its weekend film program


For four decades, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has fed film aficionados a steady diet of movie classics -- retrospectives that included works from Roman Polanski, Cary Grant, Ernst Lubitsch and, in a current series, James Mason. But the museum’s weekend film program was losing both money and its audience, and LACMA said Tuesday that it was pulling the plug on its cinematic centerpiece.

Before there were local film festivals nearly every week and mass merchants such as Target stocking art-house hits like “A Room With a View” and “Gosford Park” on their DVD shelves, LACMA’s series was one of the few places area movie lovers could find Hollywood classics and foreign-language standouts.

Screenings often included appearances by and conversations with distinguished filmmakers and legendary actors and actresses.


The museum said that it was not abandoning its commitment to films and filmmakers but instead wanted to rethink its approach to the art form, and would look for potential donors to underwrite an unspecified future film program that is curated like any other part of the museum’s exhibits.

“It’s not that people don’t love film here, but it’s hard,” said Michael Govan, the museum’s director. “We are getting diminishing audiences. This is a good time, since we are shrinking, to spend time thinking and rethinking. We do have to stem our losses.”

Govan did not say when the museum’s revamped film programming would debut but suggested there could be some next spring. The last weekend screening, “The Classic Films of Alain Resnais,” will be held Oct. 2 to 17.

Govan said that during the interim, LACMA’s film offerings would be limited to “special programs related to exhibitions.”

LACMA’s action comes while movies aimed at discriminating audiences are struggling. At the same time, theaters presumably dedicated to highbrow productions are exhibiting popcorn titles instead.

In its Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, the American Cinematheque is showing a scant handful of movie masterpieces (“The Graduate,” “Breathless”) alongside a flood of B-movies and vintage blockbusters; the August schedule includes “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.”

“It comes as a real shock,” Shannon Kelley, the head of programming at UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, said of LACMA’s decision. “I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and part of the constellation of film culture has been LACMA with its film program. They have been a real leader in terms of framing film in the film community as modern art and a global art.”

“This is a company town and of all the museums in the country to not show film, this is the last one [that shouldn’t],” said veteran producer Lawrence Turman (“The Graduate,” “American History X”), who also serves as director of the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. “If I were on the board, I’d say, ‘Let’s go to every studio and see if they will pitch in.’ ”

As part of canceling its weekend screening series -- which the museum said had racked up $1 million in losses over the last 10 years -- LACMA is moving its film department head of the last 13 years, Ian Birnie, from a full-time employee to a part-time consultant.

Birnie and Govan said the weekend screenings -- a 2005 series called “Paranoia Films of the ‘70s,” for example, included “The Parallax View,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Taxi Driver” -- lost their cachet when classic films became widely available in video stores. “The big fall-off is from DVDs,” Birnie said.

Govan said that despite the cancellation of the weekend program, LACMA’s film commitment would actually be expanding.

“It is an effort to shake things up -- to say we can’t do the status quo anymore,” Govan said, hopeful that LACMA’s Hollywood-connected board members (including producer Brian Grazer and former Warner Bros. studio chief Terry Semel) might help brainstorm ideas and raise money for the museum’s movie programming future.

“We’re not going to do it the way we used to,” Govan said. “I have a much greater ambition than the weekend film program.”

Govan said an endowment of about $5 million could generate enough income to support a basic film department.

“Film is a core part of the visual arts of the 20th and 21st centuries,” Govan said of the museum’s commitment. “It’s not like it’s an ancillary program.”

Film has enjoyed a presence at American art museums since the 1930s. The standard approach is to show films that are directly related to the institutions’ exhibitions and collections, but some leading museums have developed extensive, international programs appealing to broad audiences.

The leader is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which claims on its website to have built “the strongest international film collection in the United States.” (LACMA does not have a permanent film collection).

Film is also an important part of the program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which attracts about 32,000 people a year to 224 screenings, including festivals put on with other organizations. Last year, LACMA’s film attendance was 22,754, the museum said.

Several local museums have film programs, but none as ambitious as LACMA’s.

The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles occasionally present films in conjunction with exhibitions. The Southwest Museum and the Museum of the American West, under the umbrella of the Autry National Center, organize film series to illuminate their missions.

The Skirball Cultural Center’s film program covers a broad range of subjects in 35 to 50 screenings a year. The Hammer Museum, a relative newcomer to local museum film programming, presents exhibition-related films and serves as a venue for festivals co-organized with the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

LACMA’s film department was born in 1972. Historian Ronald Haver helped preservationist David Shepard create a program that soon lured film buffs with sold-out retrospectives. Haver ran the program for more than 20 years; Birnie was hired in 1996.

Like many museums, LACMA is laboring to attract younger ticket buyers to its galleries, and Govan said film might help in that quest.

“It almost seems obvious that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art should have one of the leading film programs,” he said. “But we are not closing cold and shutting the spigot off tomorrow.”


Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.