New York, NY, August 30, 2009 -- "As you know the L.A. County Museum has always been close to our hearts and especially the motion deptartment," studio chief Joel Levinson said during bungled remarks at a star-studded early 90s gala fundraiser for LACMA's film division. Pausing he corrected himself, "Um, motion picture department." Levinson then introduced studio executive Griffin Mill who quipped to his boss, "Why don't you have another drink."
"You have long fostered the art of motion pictures as a serious and valuable art form in this community," Hollywood insider Mill praised the LA museum. "Many people across the country and around the world have for too long thought of movies as a popular entertainment more than serious art," Griffin Mill continued, stirring applause for his comments from the likes of Cher, Goldie Hawn, Nick Nolte and Buck Henry. "And I'm afraid a large majority of the press supports this attitude," he said, "We want great films with long shelf lives."
The fictitious arts fundraiser, aimed at preserving a place for classic films on the big screen, was a scene from Robert Altman's incisive 1992 movie about the movies, "The Player."
LACMA could use Altman right about now.
It's a been a tough summer for cinema. The economic crisis has hit film organizations and festivals hard. With corporate support for arts programs and events dwindling, administrators and planners have taken a closer look at their financial situations and, in many cases, made significant cutbacks. In the past few months, organizations such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Denver Film Society, Seattle's Northwest Film Forum, New York's Rooftop Films and others have faced economic hardships that have played out in public.
LACMA slashed its forty year old repertory and foreign film program in June but last week agreed to reinstate it through next year after cinema activists and moviegoers mobilized online. They changed course after a couple of corporations stepped with cash donations to temporarily save the program.
"It's not that people don't love film here, but it's hard," LACMA museum director Michael Govan told the LA Times recently, "We are getting diminishing audiences. This is a good time since we are shrinking to spend time thinking and rethinking. We do have to stem our losses."
His wake-up call worked. But, it has also raised more questions. With LACMA spending millions to acquire new paintings and other works, outsiders and patrons are concerned that the museum doesn't consider film a signifcant art form. To deal with the situation, the museum chief has agreed to meet with frustrated local cinephiles in L.A. on Tuesday in what's being called a "popcorn summit."
"I find it profoundly disheartening to know that a vital outlet for the exhibition of what was once known as 'repertory cinema' has been cut off in L.A. of all places, the center of film production and the land of the movie-making itself," filmmaker Martin Scorsese wrote, in a recent letter to LACMA decrying their decision to curtail the film program.
It's clear that with funding for film programs and festivals fading, now is the time to take a stand for cinema. The economic downturn has certainly hurt arts patrons and corporate underwriters, so it's essential that film lovers continue to send a strong message in support of movies to whomever will listen.
Perhaps that support for cinema needs to come from a higher authority.
In June, I served on a panel reviewing applications for the National Endowment for the Arts during an annual funding cycle that provides grants to film programs and festivals. These outlets are the primary gateway for artists and audiences to connect with both new and classic films. Organizers told me that they'd received so many requests for support that two separate panels were needed to review all of the applications. Since taking office in January, President Obama has authorized immediate NEA funding to stimulate arts organizations and then appointed theater producer Rocco Landesman, who will be an important advocate for arts funding, to head the organization.
“We’re going to be looking for funding increases that are more than incremental,” Landesman told the New York Times last month calling the current NEA budget both “pathetic” and “embarrassing."
Support from the NEA, private and corporate funders, politicians, outspoken filmmakers, as well as backing from arts advocates and public patrons will no doubt all be crucial if there is going to be a successful plan for solidifying a foundation for cinema and the arts in general.
"Without places like LACMA and other museums, archives, and festivals where people can still see a wide variety of films projected on screen with an audience, what do we lose? We lose what makes the movies so powerful and such a pervasive cultural influence," Scorsese said in his recent letter to LACMA. "If this is not valued in Hollywood, what does that say about the future of the art form?"
As we mark the end of the summer movie season and enter into the U.S. fall festivals later this week, a circuit that takes films and filmmakers from Telluride and New York to audiences at events in Denver, Woodstock, Chicago, the Hamptons, and Los Angeles, among others, we'll need to seriously consider how the industry, filmmakers and moviegoers alike would all be impacted if any of these festivals or their organizations were forced to cutback or close down. We must continue to embrace films as an art form, support the institutions that present this work to audiences, and also advocate for greater funding from all sectors. And finally, Hollywood and the industry at large need to back the preservation and presentation of classic cinema at the same time that they try to garner audience favor for their new films via these organizations and festivals.
"We and the other major film studios have a responsibility to the public, to maintain the art of motion pictures as our primary mandate," fictitious studio executive Griffin Mill told the LACMA crowd in "The Player," concluding his remarks, "Movies are art. Now more than ever."