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by Dana Harris
June 17, 2011 3:48 AM
6 Comments
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INTERVIEW | Can Elvis Mitchell Get Los Angeles to Watch Movies in a Museum?

True story: Two friends in the film industry. One lives in New York, the other Los Angeles. They're discussing how the Tim Burton exhibit will do at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, after its huge success at MOMA.

New York: Do a lot of people go to that museum?

Los Angeles: A lot of people drive by it, but I don't know that they stop.

Making people in Los Angeles stop at a museum is job one for Elvis Mitchell, the newly appointed curator for the Film Independent/Los Angeles County Museum of Art film series that begins this fall.

When LACMA announced in July 2009 that it intended to suspend its 40-year-old weekend film program, there was an outcry. Martin Scorsese sent an open letter to LACMA and its director, Michael Govan, saying he was "deeply disturbed" by the decision.

Playing devil's advocate, you could understand why closing might have seemed like a wise idea at the time. Audience demand appeared to be in deep decline and the series saw $1 million in losses over the course of a decade. And the programming (which came out of LACMA's education department) didn't seem particularly vital to its residents. If Los Angeles is a smog-choked city that lives and breathes movies, LACMA's movie program could have used an inhaler.

A month after announcing the program's demise, Govan reversed course after receiving $150,000 in funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Time Warner Cable/Ovation TV. Said Govan: "We’re very pleased that we can keep film rolling while we build for the future. Our goal is to create a field-leading film department that captures the ever-growing importance of film and moving images in the history of art.”

Today, the museum has a partner in its film program with FIND, which is paying Mitchell's full-time salary (he starts July 11). Mitchell and FIND will work with the museum's staff to curate the series, sponsored by (former Mitchell employer) the New York Times. Says Mitchell of the opportunity: "I recognize how extraordinarily fortunate I am."

Now that the money's been sorted, what about the movies? Better yet: What about the museum? Clearly it would like to be redefined as a lynchpin to the movie culture of Los Angeles -- but as is often the case here, a lot of people who would like that role. "Cinefamily, New Beverly, the American Cinematheque -- it's scary in that part of town," Mitchell said.

However, he thinks that as a museum "LACMA has the imprimatur of art and that's a big leg up." And: "The first thing I want to do is not alienate people who have been coming to LACMA to see movies."

That said, Mitchell's interests lie in expanding, if not redefining, what it might mean to see a movie at an art museum. "I'd love to get in the people who make videogames (like) 'LA Noire,' 'Grand Theft Auto,' he said. "You can't go to movies and not see the influence of those games. I want to expand and not ignore the late 20th-century additions to filmed entertainment."

That also could include television. "For kids under 25, there is no line of demarcation anymore," he said. "There's not that kind of snobbery."

Mitchell said he could imagine programming a week of Steven Spielberg's TV work, which included TV movie "Something Evil" as well as the first episode of "Columbo" (which was written by Steven Bochco.) "I remember seeing (1968-1971 TV series) 'The Name of the Game' and the episode 'LA 2017,' which was sort of a 'THX 1138' ripoff," Mitchell said. "I remember thinking it didn't look anything like television. He brought a whole new kind of film perspective to television."

He also sees opportunity in serving as an outlet for films that get little in the way of significant distribution but have the potential to find a real audience. "I've seen stuff I'd love to program out of Pusan and Mexico," he said. "You can't ignore the Asian and Hispanic populations in LA. We can let audiences know independent film is not just about white men."

Similarly, he sees opportunity to expand not only FIND programming but also provide an outlet for little-seen awards season nominees such as the Independent Spirit Awards' Cassevetes contenders or the Academy's short films. There's also the possibility of using his long-running syndicated public radio show, "The Treatment," to create live Q&As at LACMA. ("The Treatment" is produced by KCRW in Santa Monica.)

But first, he's got to get here. Mitchell will move from New York to Los Angeles for the job, not that he knows where he'll live. When he's lived in LA before, he's always favored the museum's Miracle Mile neighborhood.

"It's such a great part of town," he says of the museum's location. "And they can park."

If only he can get them to stop.

"Make sure you mention that," he says. "There's plenty of parking at LACMA."

6 Comments

  • Scott Nye | June 21, 2011 12:04 PMReply

    Really looking forward to this - one of the reasons I moved to Los Angeles in January was for its theatrical exhibition, and LACMA has been offering up some greats over the last few months.

    It's also worth noting that not only is there plenty of paid parking in the LACMA area, there is a surprising amount of free parking, especially on weekends. Go south of the museum, and you can park a block away, all day, for nothing.

  • David | June 19, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    4 out of 5 visitors to LACMA's 900,000 are local, which is unusually higher than other museums of it's caliber. But the premise of the article is about getting locals to go to LACMA? False premise.

    The challenge isn't getting more museum goers by sprucing up the film program. Getting the existing museum goers to stop by for a film is the real challenge.

  • Karie Bible | June 17, 2011 8:17 AMReply

    Dana-I must respectfully disagree with you on a few points here. The programming at LACMA HAS been vital to many people for a long time. I could site numerous examples. I have attended past screenings of films including: SECRET SUNSHINE, MY FAIR LADY, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, GREED and HEAVEN'S GATE which were all very crowded and even sold out in many cases!

    Also the programming at LACMA was done out of the film department by Ian Birnie who was there for 14 years. He kept the costs very low and did an outstanding job with very little in the way or support or resources from the museum for a long time.

    Unfortunately due to DVDs and downloading (not to mention a vast array of other choices) it is more difficult than ever to get patrons into a theatre. I will be curious to see if Elvis Mitchell can keep the audience and even expand it. While I wish him well, the accomplishments of Birnie shouldn't be in any way diminished.

    -Karie Bible
    FilmRadar.com

  • Sarah Spitz | June 17, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    Hey dana, please credit the photo...Marc Goldstein for KCRW. Thanks!

  • Dana Harris | June 17, 2011 6:19 AMReply

    You're absolutely right. Was my mistake, not his. Thanks.

  • Anon | June 17, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    "The Sugarland Express" was NOT a TV movie. You're thinking of "Duel" or "Something Evil."