The long Yellow Brick Road to Hollywood’s new museum

Los Angeles Times

The organization that brings us the Oscars aims to debut a major motion-picture museum in Los Angeles about 31/2 years from now. A star attraction will be a pair of the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, Stephen Spielberg and former Warner Bros. executive Terry Semel teamed to buy them last year for the museum, which aims to open by mid-2017 after renovating and expanding an unused building it is leasing from the next-door Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wants its $300-million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures to be much more than a fancy repository for Hollywood memories.


Its goal is to create a respected cultural institution capable of satisfying tourists’ quest for fun while giving the most fanatical film buff a sophisticated and insightful encounter with the art, history and technology of cinema.

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Dorothy’s slippers can’t hurt, but to earn the respect and cachet it aspires to, the Academy Museum will also need three famous intangibles the wizard bestowed on her sidekicks.

The brains to deftly balance entertainment with scholarly heft. The courage not to be manipulated by studio executives, actors or directors who might view the nonprofit museum as a tool for boosting box-office returns, gratifying egos or controlling artistic and historical interpretations that are supposed to be up to the curators. And a heart — Hollywood’s collective philanthropic heart — that’s eager to express itself by giving the museum the money and collection items it needs to thrive.

The academy is entering a landscape for museum exhibitions about cinema that’s marked by booming growth but also by significant failures.

Since 2009, the moving-image museums in Melbourne and New York City have undergone expensive renovations or additions, and major new venues have sprouted in Toronto, Amsterdam and Shanghai.

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Recent touring exhibitions at LACMA on directors Tim Burton and Stanley Kubrick give indication of an L.A. film museum’s prospects. The family-friendly Burton show in 2011 was the museum’s fifth-most popular attraction of the past 35 years, drawing 2,691 visitors a day. The Kubrick exhibition, which closed in July and included R-rated elements, drew 1,007 daily visitors — good but not extraordinary.

The British Film Institute, the academy’s top peer in the English-speaking world, launched a Museum of the Moving Image in 1988, only to dismantle it 11 years later because of meager attendance. In L.A., the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, envisioned in the 1980s as a big attraction and economic engine for its neighborhood, failed to muster the money it needed to be a major draw. The drastically scaled-back museum closed in 2006 after an unspectacular 10-year run.

Detailed planning hasn’t begun for the Academy Museum’s exhibitions, said Bill Kramer, managing director of the academy’s museum project.

A chief curator it aims to hire by the end of this year will play a pivotal role. The person is expected not only to be a film scholar but a leader who can define how museum departments should be structured and staffed. The job will include sifting through ideas from the academy’s more than 6,000 members — film professionals whose input is being encouraged. Kramer, who came to the academy in 2012 after serving as a fundraising executive for the California Institute of the Arts and the Southern California Institute of Architecture, said the museum’s exhibitions will showcase foreign, independent and experimental cinema along with Hollywood filmmaking.

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A museum director is also being sought, to be hired by late next year, when construction is expected to begin.

The 290,000-square-foot layout, designed by architects Renzo Piano and Zoltan Pali, gives an idea of its major programming components. There is just under 50,000 square feet of exhibition space — roughly the same as the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA or the Museum of Contemporary Art’s downtown Geffen Contemporary building.

A 12,000-square-foot permanent exhibit called “Making Of” will include hands-on interactive stations where visitors can learn about the craft of filmmaking.

“We want to premiere new technologies,” said Kramer, rather than merely duplicate what exists elsewhere.

At the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, N.Y., visitors can dub their own dialogue over famous film scenes, create animations and upload them to YouTube, or make a motion picture “flip book” of fluttering stills, starring themselves.

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The L.A. museum will devote 10,000 square feet to a permanent exhibit on film history, and an 8,700-square-foot hall will tell the story of the Oscars and the academy. Touring shows and temporary displays will fill two galleries totaling 14,900 square feet, and a 2,000-square-foot below-ground gallery will offer a changing assortment of artifacts from the academy’s collection.

For film screenings, two 144-seat theaters will complement a 1,000-seat cinema housed in a transparent bubble to be built next to the main building. The academy hopes it will be a magnet for movie premieres. Kramer said a 150-seat “demonstration stage” will feature artist talks and technical workshops, helping to generate repeat visits from cinema students, connoisseurs and professionals.

Consultants have predicted an average draw of nearly 900,000 visitors a year, Kramer said, split about evenly between Southern Californians and tourists. He envisions ticket prices in “parity” with LACMA’s $15.

Jeffrey Richardson, curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms at L.A.'s Autry National Center of the American West, said it will be fascinating to see how the Academy Museum handles expectations.

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“They have to do something spectacular because of who they are,” he said. “People are going to expect the quality they see every year with the Academy Awards. They’re going to have to find a unique balance between entertainment and education. They’re going to want to get into the key issues that have faced America culturally and socially, and to do so they might not always want to focus on the biggest films and the big studios.”

Besides being spectacular, the Academy Museum will need to be pure. The worst-case scenario would be a perception that Hollywood studios and other commercial interests can manipulate it to serve their marketing ends. But there can be pitfalls even when it’s obvious that a subject is worthy of an exhibition: Who’s in control of the portrayal is as crucial in museum ethics as what’s being portrayed.

The ethics and standards code of the American Alliance of Museums, a leading nonprofit trade organization, insists that the equivalents of script approval, final cut and the authority to green-light a project must reside with museum professionals, not with an exhibition’s subject, financial contributors or artifact lenders.

Carl Goodman, executive director of the Museum of the Moving Image, which occupies a building in a historic 1920s film studio complex in Astoria, Queens, and Rajendra Roy, chief curator of film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said that sometimes exhibition ideas have to be shelved because curators can’t persuade studios or film artists and their estates to cede control.

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“Luckily, there are hundreds of potential projects out there,” Goodman said.

“Politics is not lacking in the curatorial process,” Roy said. “You’ve got to have somebody who can navigate those egos and expectations with a nuanced, diplomatic approach, convincing the powers-that-be that there is a right way to get the story across [as opposed to] a way that would be a total embarrassment and train wreck.”

MoMA organized and debuted the gigantic touring retrospective on Burton. The director trusted its curators to make the right calls, Roy said, and “what made it successful was the sense that this was an open and uncensored, curated view of him.”

Kramer, the academy’s museum project managing director, is confident that Hollywood and the academy’s members are embracing the necessary ground rules.

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“Their expectation is that we are building a world-class cultural institution. They expect us to curate it in the proper way,” Kramer said. “I don’t anticipate any confusion over how we do that or undue influence from sectors of the film industry. We’ve been very clear with people that this is how you build a museum, and they want us to do that properly and are on board with that.”

The academy’s longstanding film library and film archive represent a strand of its institutional DNA that should serve it well as it takes on running a museum, said Jan-Christopher Horak, a veteran collections archivist and curator of exhibitions about cinema who’s now director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Less prominent than the Oscars, the library and archive serve scholars doing film research and other institutions that borrow academy-owned artifacts and film prints for their gallery exhibitions and screening series.

“All the people I know and have worked with at the academy and its library and film archive have no interest in distorting film history the way the film studio bosses may,” Horak said. “They’re all very historically conscientious, and I expect to see that in this museum.”

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Despite the recent proliferation and expansion of film museums, there is a school of thought that says the era when the cinema and its artifacts held a special, golden glow for the public is passing.

Film historian David Thomson and Alison Trope, a USC professor whose 2012 book, “Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood,” examines how the movie industry has tried to present itself in noncinematic settings such as museums and theme parks, said in interviews that pilgrimages to film museums may seem less inviting for younger audiences accustomed to watching movies in the most casual ways — on hand-held devices and laptops, often while multi-tasking.

Another question is whether the film community, on top of meeting the challenge of a $300-million campaign to fund construction that the academy says is now more than halfway to its goal, will continue donating millions each year for ongoing operations and new artifact acquisitions.

The biggest gifts for construction have been $25 million from David Geffen, whose name will go on the 1,000-seat theater, and $20 million from Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese entertaiment, tourisim and real estate conglomerate for which the film history gallery will be named.

The failed London film museum relied heavily on admissions earnings, and so will the Academy Museum. It expects to cover about 25% of its expenses with donations, Kramer said. Like the industry it will chronicle, the Academy Museum is counting on boffo box office to prosper.

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Nationwide, private donations and government funding (which the academy does not anticipate getting) account for 61% of the average museum’s income, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

“I can tell you [fundraising for film programs] is a tough sell,” said Horak, the UCLA Film and Television Archive director. “It’s always been amazing to me that the people who make the big, big money have been so tightfisted in terms of giving to their own.”

He thinks that jobs in the movie industry are so unstable that even highly successful people worry that their careers might suddenly dive, making them hesitant to commit to large-scale philanthropy. And when they do, Horak said, the tendency is to give to other causes, perhaps because it seems more selfless than supporting nonprofit screenings or exhibitions associated with the lucrative business in which their fortunes were made.

Thomson suggested what he thinks would be a surefire way for the Academy Museum to prove its independence and seriousness of purpose.

When it opens, the film historian said, “Orson Welles would be a great first subject. All his life he was anti-Hollywood, and this place should establish from the very beginning that it is not a servant to Hollywood — it’s a servant to the history and art of film.”