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LACMA Director Grilled on Film Program

Michael Govan on his vision, the heated "popcorn" talk with the public -- and playing make-up with Martin Scorsese.

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said earlier this summer it was suspending its 40-year-old weekend film program because funds had run out, LACMA's director Michael Govan was besieged by criticism -- even from luminaries like Martin Scorsese.

 
Then on Aug. 26, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Time Warner Cable came to the rescue, each pledging $75,000, enough to keep the program open until June 2010, which led Govan to decide to expand the museum's film department -- an endeavor that will require $5 - $6 million if it wants to survive past the end of the next fiscal year.
 
Govan was grilled by TheWrap's Amy Kaufman about his about-face, his vision for the new film department and playing make-up with Martin Scorsese.
 
Film series attendance was down 50 percent over the last 10 years, yet when the  program got suspended, there was huge public outcry. If people are so upset, why didn't they show up sooner?
It's a little bit of human nature. But it's better that more people got involved in the discussion than were actually going to the theater. This shows me there's a larger potential audience. Maybe I'm being hopeful there, assuming that if people sign petitions, we can convince them to actually join.

To what do you attribute you drop in audience?
I don't want to get stuck on that point. You can't have no patrons and no audience, and we have patrons. Obviously, it's a question of balance. I think we can do better if we run some fun outdoor programs, that kind of thing. All we were seeing were negative trends -- less audience, no money, and costs rising. Not one positive uptick. Now we've got money coming in, and we've got more people coming to the theater. 


But why try to expand things now, during tough economic times?
I actually thought it was a good time to confront it, while the economy is down, because we had postponed our bigger building projects.

 

Film is becoming more important and the city is becoming bigger. That's why we need a bigger program. And we really just didn't have the money to run the film program the way it was. Everyone was saying, "You only need $150,000." But the trend line was the issue. $150,000 was the minimum we needed to run the program. 


What do all the costs go towards?
Staff. A film coordinator and a second person, a projectionist. Lots of people are involved if you run a theater. And you have the costs of film rentals. So let's get the right budget -- instead of $360,000 a year, it's $500,000 a year.
 

What happened during last week's "popcorn summit" meeting between you and the members of the L.A. film community?
The meeting was extremely productive in terms of sharing creative ideas. What I tried to communicate was what I've tried to communicate from day one: You won't see LACMA without film. It's way too important to art history and to us. But the shape of that program ... everyone's saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I'm telling you, it's broken. You can't keep the budget the same for 25 years while costs are rising and the audience is diminishing. That's a train wreck waiting to happen.

 
It was tense at moments, because a lot is at stake. But "angry" was not the tenor of it. American Cinematheque, the AFI, we're all wondering how to get people into theaters, how to stop DVD (sales) from falling.

Martin Scorsese wrote an open letter in the L.A. Times, bemoaning the failure of the films series. What was discussed during your meeting with him at his home in New York last week?
We had a fantastic meeting for hours. It was a conversation about what role a museum has to play in film history. If you get film to be seen as a department of a museum, then it will be more obvious to people who own things that they should be preserved.

He told a lot of stories about how early in the '70s there was a dearth of opportunity for seeing films. He also talked about how our own film art is gonna disappear. And it's true -- there are prints of very important films that exist as one copy in a closet. So he talked about how he had convinced studios to think about their archives.

So how is he going to help out LACMA's film department?
He hasn't been here in a long time. We talked about why it was an urgent time to consider film as art. I said we needed to think about conservation and multiple theaters running things daily, and he was in absolute agreement.
 
So then I said, "What do you think we should do? You know some of these people better than I do." He was very encouraging. He said, "Maybe I can call some people." I almost said, you kind of have to follow through with this now because you put your name out there.

What else have you outlined for the new film program?
I set up three goals which we are going to reconsider. One was to create a substainable financial model. We've done this with a lot of aspects of the museum, since we're only 30 percent county-funded. Film is the last area to find patrons and supporters, but it's about time. People say, "Aren't you worried you're not gonna get them?" Every other aspect of the museum does.
 
The last big issue was to take it from periphery to the center. We need a full curatorial department to bring it into the art side of the museum. I want this to be a more ambitious and central place for film. If it takes a little while, so be it, because we'll make it work.

What's the next step?
Right now, we have the money to keep rolling. I want to shift the discussion to, "Are you gonna try to hustle money every year to run a weekend series, or are you going to put a foundation under this?" If it adds up, let's all of us see what's at stake and not beg for money every year.
 
Let's get some regular contributors that want to follow the film program and chip in a little and attend.
 
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