LACMA’s film program ‘still in jeopardy’

There’s an adage in the movie business that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

But all the publicity, bad or otherwise, that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art received after it tried to eliminate its weekend film series last summer, then reversed itself after an outcry from cinema-lovers, hasn’t greatly boosted attendance or advanced the museum’s bid to raise $5 million or more for an endowment to cover the film program’s costs.

The protests that saved the program included director Martin Scorsese’s open letter in The Times asserting the importance of movie screenings in a museum context. But despite the high-profile backdrop to their fundraising efforts, LACMA officials say that financial support — presumably from film industry figures who’d be the logical donors to an L.A. film endowment — has not materialized.

The weekend film program still lives, and will for at least another fiscal year, LACMA officials said. But without the $5-million to $6-million endowment that museum Director Michael Govan wants to raise to cover most costs, it will remain on life support.

“The film program is still in jeopardy,” Melody Kanschat, LACMA’s president, said last week. “Considering all the press and all the clamoring to raise the profile of the program, the amount of attendance was not knock-your-socks-off. It was a very slow growth.”

When the fiscal year ends June 30, LACMA officials said, the entire film program, including the endangered weekend screenings, will have drawn about 30,000 viewers, including $10 and $5 admissions for the Friday and Saturday night screenings in the Bing Theatre. That is an increase from 2008-09 when attendance was 25,000 — a total that initially had prompted LACMA leaders to say they needed to end the weekend program because, amid steadily dwindling interest, it had cost the museum $1 million in deficits over 10 years, with no prospects for improvement.

The film program’s troubles have coincided with film fans’ increased access to DVDs and other means of staying home to see classics, foreign cinema and other staples of cinematic series such as the one LACMA launched in 1968.

Average attendance at the threatened weekend series over the current year was 232 per night in the 600-seat Bing Theatre, according to LACMA figures.

The film endowment that Govan envisions would yield $250,000 to $300,000 a year. It would cover the lion’s share of a program that museum officials said cost $360,000 in the fiscal year that’s about to end, and is projected at $332,000 in the 2010-11 operating budget that the LACMA board adopted last week.

The $28,000 reduction reflects plans to decrease the number of double-feature screenings, because attendance for late shows on double bills is “dramatically lower,” LACMA spokeswoman Barbara Pflaumer said.

It’s uncertain whether two $75,000 donations that last year helped save the weekend screenings will be renewed. Representatives of the donors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and Ovation Television, said the organizations were still considering whether to donate again.

In January, after Scorsese’s letter was published, he visited LACMA for a public conversation with Govan about film. And at a screening at LACMA in February, Clint Eastwood and Hollywood executive and LACMA board member Terry Semel pledged their support for the film program. Still, LACMA officials said, no other donors have stepped up.

The Time Warner Cable and Ovation donations together augmented with $1.5 million worth of promotional time between programs on various Time Warner channels. Combining the cash gifts and earnings from the uptick in attendance, Kanschat said, “we were able to cover the cost of the program for the first time in many years. But it took a ton of effort.”

Kanschat said fundraising for the hoped-for film endowment continues, amid a tough environment that saw LACMA raise just $7 million during 2009-10 for one of its top priorities: the $450-million expansion and renovation campaign it announced in 2005, which remains $132 million short of its goal.

Courting donors for the film endowment is, she said, “taking a tremendous amount of effort. Between the development staff and Michael’s time, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time” on it. Asked how long the museum would persevere with weekend screenings if attendance doesn’t soar and no endowment materializes, Kanschat said, “there isn’t a definite time when you say ‘pull the plug,’ but like any other well-run business, we have to look at how much effort goes into keeping a program alive.”

LACMA officials have said film would remain a regular presence at the museum even if the weekend screenings were to end. They envision programming films that dovetail with the subjects, themes and social-historical contexts of the museum’s art exhibitions, in place of the current cinema-for-cinema’s sake approach.

Debra Levine, a founder of the Save Film at LACMA group that formed last year to protest the proposed elimination of the weekend film series, expressed dismay when told that LACMA officials remain unmoved by the modest attendance gain and haven’t secured any gifts for an endowment that would take the pressure off of box-office earnings.

“Gaining audience attention requires constant, aggressive marketing, which we are still not seeing from the museum,” Levine said in a statement she e-mailed. “Considering that Los Angeles is the heart of the movie universe, we find it deeply troubling” that no endowment gifts have come in. “It again raises doubts about the museum’s true commitment to film as an art form.”