Column: L.A.’s new film museum was plagued by delays. Why that turned out to be a very good thing

The new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures with traffic passing by on Fairfax Avenue.
The lights of passing cars on Fairfax Avenue glow in front of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
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The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will finally, officially, open Sept. 30, and, honestly, it is about time.

Logistically, architecturally and, more important, spiritually about time.

It is definitely about time Los Angeles had a big, beautiful museum dedicated to the art form that has defined this city for more than a century. The Hollywood Museum did what it could, but showcasing the glamour of Hollywood is not the same thing as exploring the history, challenges, impact and failures of cinema.

And it is absolutely about time this long-heralded project came to fruition. Wish-list discussions about a Los Angeles film museum have spanned two millennia, occupying the attention of countless film academy board members. After spending more time in development hell than any other project in Hollywood, the museum was subsequently plagued by more production and budgetary setbacks than “Apocalypse Now.” Over the last nine years, “Motion picture museum delayed” became such a ubiquitous news item that it barely counted as actual news.

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The Art Deco exterior of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
The Art Deco exterior of the former May Co. at Wilshire and Fairfax that now is home to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In 2012, when the academy could finally say “we’ve got the barn” (the former May Co. turned LACMA’s Art Deco building at Wilshire and Fairfax) and “we’ve got the talent” (architects Zoltan Pali and Renzo Piano), the museum was supposed to be completed in 2017. After Pali left in 2014, and as the budget grew, fundraising stalled and the opening was pushed to 2019. In 2019, just as construction was reportedly entering its final stages, the film museum’s director, Kerry Brougher, quit. He was replaced a few months later by Bill Kramer, who believed he would preside over the then-promised 2020 opening. Which was then made impossible by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens Sept. 30 as a celebration of Hollywood history, Oscar lore and today’s movie makers. Get a sneak peek.

But at the end of this month, barring asteroid collision or alien invasion, that museum will open, and it is about time. Past, present and future.

Structurally, the museum connects the past — the refurbished delight of the Streamline Moderne May Co. department store built in 1939 — to the future; Piano refers to his enormous sci-fi-like sphere, which houses the larger of the museum’s two theaters, as “the spaceship”; others, a bit more specifically, as “the Death Star.”

Together they create a vessel that chronicles the history of filmmaking, the film academy and the cultural force known as Hollywood in ways that only the passage of time could make possible.

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 The Dolby Family Terrace at the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum.
The Dolby Family Terrace at the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Including the most recent years during which many began to wonder if the Academy Museum, rising as box office fell, was some bizarre hoax that would never actually be finished.

Creating a film museum that is more than a collection of props and old scripts was always the biggest challenge the academy faced — we all love Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the backdrop for “North by Northwest,” but most of us are not about to shell out 25 bucks, much less pay for a membership, to see them.

In 2021, however, technology has advanced far enough that it is possible for a film museum to showcase actual films, and not just in the two theaters. Yes, there are loads of glass cases filed with a wild assortment of memorabilia for visitors to look at, and many panels of interesting information for them to read, but there are also screens, of every size and variety, filled with all manner of actual film.

More important, the years of delay coincided with years of revelation, outrage, admission and change, within the film academy and cinematic world.

In 2012, the same year plans for the museum were announced, The Times published the results of its yearlong investigation into voting members of the film academy, revealing that they were 94% white and 77% male.

The Academy Museum's spherical David Geffen Theater hovers over a public plaza.
The Academy Museum’s spherical David Geffen Theater hovers over a public plaza.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Since then, even as the Academy Museum struggled with internal tensions and increasing outside criticism, so did the academy itself. In 2016, after two years of #oscarssowhite and an 89-year history in which only one woman had ever won an Oscar for directing, academy leadership announced a wildly ambitious initiative to grow and diversify its membership. Last year, those goals were met.

During those years, the academy, like the film industry, grappled with the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo movement, outrage over the whitewashing of Asian and Hispanic representation from film, and a nationalistic focus on an international art form. In 2017, the year the museum was originally scheduled to open, the academy ousted Weinstein; in 2020, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” swept the Oscars; in 2021, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” won best picture and Zhao became the second woman to win an Oscar for directing.

If the motion picture museum had opened in 2017 or even 2019, it would not have reflected any of that. If the motion picture museum had opened according to plan, which was originally titled “Where Dreams Are Made: A Journey Inside the Movies,” visitors would have found a starry-eyed celebration of the narrow narrative Hollywood has pitched about itself for years: Let us now praise all the famous (white) men and their leading (white) ladies, bask in Classic Hollywood as defined by those fabled ruby slippers and the magical excursions they imply.

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There is plenty of such basking to be had in the new museum, as there should be. Movies are often magical excursions — one of the museum’s inaugural exhibits, on the work of Hayao Miyazaki, includes a “My Neighbor Totoro” tree that glitters and gleams with all manner of possibilities. But some films take us on journeys that we have taken pains to avoid, some films, and revelations about the creators and industry that made them, force us to confront realities we might otherwise overlook, or even deny. And amid all the gleaming wonder of the many exhibits and installations — look, there’s Bruce the Shark from “Jaws,” R2-D2, one of Bette Davis’ Oscars — the museum opening in September 2021 reflects the real history of film better than the one that would have opened four years earlier.

A drone photo of the museum's glass-topped sphere, which has a viewing terrace on top and a 1,000-seat theater inside.
Drone photo of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ glass-topped sphere, which has a viewing terrace on top and a 1,000-seat theater inside.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Here, alongside the famous men and those leading ladies are many of the other people who may have been excluded from history’s definition of “classic” but whose work changed the art form, and the world, nonetheless.

You could easily include, perhaps just outside the gift shop, a timeline of all the problems and doubts that plagued this museum’s creation, a collection all the press releases announcing each delay during the last nine years, the critical headlines and tales of dissension. It would be funny, and prove the lesson of so many films: When things seem to be going wrong, sometimes there is a very good reason.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open Sept. 30, and it really is about time.