On a recent weekend in Los Angeles, avid and adventuresome moviegoers had a menu of screening choices that included a 1950s Mexican sci-fi film, a tripped-out 1970s insect documentary, glittery camp and fantasy action-adventure from the 1980s, plus a double bill of lesbian vampire pictures.
Also among those choices was Jean-Pierre Melville's black-and-white 1961 film "Leon Morin, Priest" starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva in a heartbreaking, disarmingly steamy yet chaste tale of unrequited romance between a widow and a local priest set against the backdrop of the German occupation of France during WWII. A late showing of the film played to a hundred or so people at the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a remarkably diverse crowd of varied ages, income brackets and nationalities. The little-known find, never before released in America, played to about 800 people total in four shows over two nights.
This fall, those cineastes may be out of luck, given the recent announcement by LACMA that it will be placing its weekend film programs -- a carefully curated mix of Hollywood classics, foreign language and art-house fare -- on indefinite hiatus. LACMA Director Michael Govan has cited declining attendance and a budget deficit of $1 million over 10 years as reasons for the cut, prompting an the uproar and an online petition signed by filmmakers, critics, programmers, industry professionals and regular moviegoers from around the globe.
The museum's action has shined a spotlight on so-called specialized exhibition in this city, the epicenter of the country's filmmaking business. On the one hand, if there is to be more to film culture than box-office statistics and celebrity gossip as well as a broader appreciation of filmmaking from around the world, institutions such as LACMA must by definition be a part of that mission of cultural education. If not, the frequently heard joke about watching "Lawrence of Arabia" on a cellphone may soon come true.
On the other hand, a fairly robust alternative movie screening community has been growing in the region and could help fill the void caused by LACMA -- if audiences truly want to get out and attend interesting programming. Some programmers also worry that younger audiences are losing the love of challenging cinema that was a hallmark of educated moviegoers in the '60s and '70s.
The changes at LACMA, which was regarded as a national model for such programming, come at a time when exhibitors already have a lot to deal with. Even commercial art-house theaters are struggling, with numerous recent theater closures, including the NuWilshire, Festival and National, and a general downturn in art-house box office. Meanwhile, award-winning films from prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Sundance struggle to secure American theatrical distribution and hold screens.
Organizations such as the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the American Cinematheque, the New Beverly Cinema and the Cinefamily, as well as the Getty Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all screen some variation on the mix of classic Hollywood, foreign-language and art-house fare that is shown at LACMA, each venue having its own identity and place on the Los Angeles filmgoers' map. While there may still be some changes to LACMA's plans -- all eyes are on the scheduled "popcorn summit" of Sept. 1 with the organization Save Film at LACMA -- the people behind those other local venues are girding themselves for the new future of specialized exhibition.
The ripple effect
"How can this not give us pause?" asked Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. "Any time a major film venue like this shutters, it really means an impoverishment for the whole city and film audiences. So even though LACMA was in some sense a competitor, we never saw each other that way. If they had great audiences it could only help build our audiences."
"It's a loss," said Hadrian Belove, head programmer of the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre. "The lack of their programs is going to be really noticeable. We are going to lose a lot of programming from Los Angeles. I don't know who's going to be able to step up and bring those programs here."
The final programs still scheduled at LACMA include eight films by contemporary Korean director Hong Sang-soo and a series spotlighting revered veteran French director Alain Resnais, exactly the kinds of films that may easily go unscreened in a post-LACMA world. As with the critically exalted 2007 Mexican film "Silent Light," the recent release of "Leon Morin, Priest" received a weeklong run in New York City but screened in Los Angeles for only two days at the museum. Losing the relative backstop of LACMA's film program for certain films will potentially put Angelenos at the disadvantage of not being part of larger national and international cultural conversations.