Academy Museum nears completion and gives a sneak peek inside

Architect Renzo Piano's orb-shaped theater building, which with a transformed May Co. building will form the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
Architect Renzo Piano’s orb-shaped, glass-domed theater building, which with a transformed May Co. building will form the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

As anticipation mounts over who will take home Oscar gold on Sunday, suspense is building over another question: When will the film academy’s long-in-the-works monument to movie history and culture — the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures — open its doors?

The answer? It could be sooner than expected.

On Friday the $388-million, Renzo Piano-designed museum opened to journalists, many of whom were in town from around the globe for the Oscars, for a sneak peek at the building under construction next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard on the site of the former 1939 May Co. building.

The Oscars ceremony gives the film academy a global stage to announce, at long last, the opening date for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Feb. 9, 2020

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
Pedestrian bridge from the Saban building, which is the historic May Company building, leading to the Sphere building of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Most of the major structural work on the May Co. building transformation and Piano’s adjacent orb-shaped theater is complete. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineering details such as HVAC systems, elevators and alarms are still being finessed, crowd flow is getting refined, gallery walls are being configured and installation of exhibits on “the art and science of movies and moviemaking” will follow.

“This museum belongs to everyone,” said new museum Director Bill Kramer in his first press appearance since stepping into the position in January. He replaces Kerry Brougher, who departed suddenly in August. “Los Angeles has never had a movie museum of this scale. ... Now it’s finally happened.”

In an interview afterward, Kramer said: “The Academy since 1930 has desired to build a movie museum. We could not be more thrilled.”

Museum Director Bill Kramer addresses members of the media assembled for a Friday sneak peek.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The 10,000-square-foot lobby, with its concrete floor and north-south unobstructed sightlines from 6th Street to Wilshire Boulevard, will house the Spielberg Family Gallery for rotating exhibitions, as well as a restaurant, cafe and retail space.

The big reveal of the tour: The 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater, nestled inside Piano’s concrete sphere — tagged the Death Star by some — appears largely complete. A red carpet leads inside, where the seats and film screen are in place. The museum is still testing and calibrating its two Dolby Vision laser projectors and lighting. Aside from the yellow caution tape and about 50 special seats that need to be dropped into the middle of the room, the theater appears nearly ready for opening night.

The Academy Museum's 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater is nearly ready for opening night.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Above the theater, the vast Dolby Family Terrace and its dome of 1,500 glass panes overlooking the Hollywood Sign and surrounding hills is well on its way to completion. The museum is testing acoustics and lighting, and it’s installing light-sensitive shades that will shift with the sun throughout the day to shield visitors from the heat.

The museum’s more intimate, lower-level Ted Mann Theater also is nearly finished. Its 288 Kelly green seats are installed, as are the movie screen and projectors. Both theaters will be used for daily screenings as well as lectures, performances, panels and other events. Just outside the Ted Mann Theater, in the lower-level lobby, the Shirley Temple Education Studio is mostly finished. It will feature a “moving image workshop” with classes for students with an emphasis on those in high school.

Dan Faltz with the Academy looks at the view from the Dolby Family Terrace, located on top of the Sphere building of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Landscaping has begun, with newly planted California fan palms, blue grama grass and other greenery along Fairfax Avenue.

Since Kramer has come on board, the museum has reconceived the two-story core exhibition on the past, present and future of filmmaking as less permanent and more “nimble,” a representative said, with sections regularly rotating and individual items on view swapping out.


Bringing the Academy Museum to fruition has been something of an epic drama — one studded, over the years, with infighting and competing visions, fundraising difficulties, cost overruns and delays. The museum’s opening date has been continually pushed back as well, from mid-2019 to late 2019 to sometime in 2020.

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
A special events space on the top floor of the Saban Building, the reimagined historic May Company building of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The museum said it has raised about $368 million, or 95% of its fundraising goal.

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