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Academy Museum Opens Doors for Preview, But Big Financial Questions Remain

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is now targeting a 2019 opening — but who will pay the last $90 million, and how many visitors will it need to cover the costs?

When the Academy invited press for a hard-hat tour of its long-delayed, over-budget Museum of Motion Pictures, we heard Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti say nice things, as did new Academy president John Bailey, museum director Kerry Brougher, new chair of new board of trustees Ron Meyer, and museum committee chair Kathleen Kennedy. Yes, it’s great that, after 90 (!) years of planning, we’re finally getting a 300,000 square-foot Los Angeles movie museum at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire to celebrate Hollywood past, present, and future.

Kathleen Kennedy and Dawn Hudson.

However, that’s not what we came for. We wanted to know when it’s going to be finished and what it’s going to look like. (Notably, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, who did much of the heavy lifting and controversy-dodging about museum funding and and construction, was on site but not part of the press conference. And LACMA director Michael Govan showed up late for the construction-site tour.)

Here are some highlights of what I learned, along with some official (and unofficial iPhone) photos.

Robert Iger and Ron Meyer.

It’s 75% funded — with $90 million to go.

The chairman of the funding campaign, Disney CEO Robert Iger (probably the most successful studio chief since Walt Disney himself), thanked the latest contributors to the museum, philanthropist Cheryl and movie and TV mogul Haim Saban, who — at Iger’s urging — plunked down a whopping $50 million. For that, they get the reconstructed art deco May Company building named after them. “When Bob calls with a good idea, you just don’t say no to him,” said Cheryl Saban. That puts funding at $298 million, needing at least two more Sabans to reach a moving target of $388 million. It could be much more.

An official rendering of the Academy’s 1,000-seat theater.

A rendering of the Academy’s piazza exterior.

It’s now scheduled to open in 2019.

The main source of the delays stemmed from retrofitting what’s now the Saban building (formerly the May Co. department store) for earthquakes. This required sinking 260 micropiles 60 feet into the earth under the foundation of the building (a process that dug up an ancient sloth, along with other small animals). Now they’re turning the lobby floor into an airy, glass-walled piazza that opens toward the new building designed by Renzo Piano.

Academy Museum, fourth floor.

It’s beautiful.

This is the good stuff. The public lobby of the restored limestone Saban building, stripped down to bare concrete, houses a restaurant, a “grab and go” store, wine bar, and gift shop (aka “retail gallery”). This leads to another shady area beneath a massive white sphere supported by concrete; it will “float” on four plinths with seismic base isolators. Inside will be a 1,000-seat theater (the projection booth is visible outside the sphere, along with a dynamic white antenna that is a design element with no purpose whatsoever). All state-of-the-art, of course. There’s a rooftop space (“the Dolby Terrace”) under the smart-shaded glass dome. Like many theaters, the sloped theater floor has a rake — which is visible from the lower area below.

Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are among the items of classic memorabillia that will be on display.

The core collection is classic, and familiar

This taps into the Academy library’s own massive archive of scripts, artifacts, tech objects, 50,000 posters and more than 12 million photos. These will be on the second and third floors; changing exhibitions and filmmaker retrospectives will be on the fourth. The old May Company tea room on the top floor will be a special-event space. Three glass bridges will ferry people from one space to another; the view from the fourth floor — which currently shows the half-constructed sphere and the Hollywood Hills — is impressive indeed.

A rendering of the lobby inside what is now the museum’s Saban building.

Among the museum’s various educational programs and serious collections (Katharine Hepburn! Alfred Hitchcock! Gregory Peck’s annotated “To Kill a Mockingbird” script! Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas puppet heads! R. Geiger’s 1979 sculpted “Alien” head, worn in the Ridley Scott movie by a seven-foot-two Nigerian actor!), one offering will lure the public to walk down the red carpet and “experience” the Academy Awards and get photographed with an Oscar. Hmm.

The construction workers continue to build the piazza’s massive dome.

There’s a second theater — but do we need it?

There’s a smaller 288-seat screening room for archive programming. Given the issues the LACMA already has filling their Bing theatre, not to mention the American Cinematheque’s two houses, Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin and Walter Reade screens, and Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, how will Academy programmers pull moviegoers to that 1000-seat house in the sphere — what will they show there, day in and day out? There are only so many 70 mm “Dunkirk” and restored classic possibilities a year. (I see a lot of future Hollywood premieres — assuming the art of the two-hour motion picture survives.)

Raising the funding to build this lofty beautiful idea of a museum is one thing. Getting people to come? That’s another.

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