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Elvis Mitchell is New Film Independent/LACMA Film Curator

Elvis Mitchell is New Film Independent/LACMA Film Curator

Elvis Mitchell lands on his feet yet again. One thing about having been a film critic at the New York Times, visiting professor at Harvard, documentary filmmaker, and KCRW host of The Treatment: you get plenty of cred.

Thus it’s no surprise that Film Independent and Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan are hiring film critic Mitchell (who recently departed Movieline under a cloud of controversy) as the museum’s outsourced film curator. He in effect will replace outgoing film curator Ian Birnie, who has run LACMA’s film department for 14 years. The film program at LACMA was saved from suspension in October 2008 by an outcry from the film community, including director Martin Scorsese, and bailouts from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Time Warner Cable and Ovation TV, which helped to cover budget shortfalls. Mitchell will start on July 11 and move back to Los Angeles.

One of Mitchell’s longtime champions is new Academy chief Dawn Hudson, who admired Mitchell’s many Q & As over the years for Film Independent; there’s no debate over Mitchell’s skills as an interviewer. One can see the assets Mitchell brings; he has vast knowledge and love of movies as well as a global rolodex of contacts, many of them top filmmakers and celebrities. No one is better connected. UPDATE: IndieWIRE interviews him here.

In April, Hudson closed a deal with Govan, days before announcing her departure for the Academy, to launch a Film Independent film series at LACMA in September sponsored by the NYT.

Revenues from LACMA’s new film club, which charges extra to members, did not increase the film department budget, which stayed the same. Thus one of the world’s major museums (with some 30 curators covering everything from photography, fashion and sculpture to Korean art) is farming out its film programming to an indie film organization that mounts the annual Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival, which opens Thursday, June 16. Govan told me at the time:

“We’re going to hire more people and attract high level curation and expertise as we steadily grow our film screenings, acquisitions and programs. Our Film Independent partnership will help us get a leg up and move faster and give us access to a constituency, expertise and filmmakers…It seemed exciting to link to that network of artists that we didn’t have, they have a lot of supporters and a great track record of finding sponsorships after our film program was struggling with so many turndowns and false starts. They felt they could help with fundraising and growth. We’ve been through a lot in this economy.”

The fall program promised by Govan will include:

“Previews of feature-length narrative and documentary films; archival films and repertory series; conversations with emerging and established filmmakers and artists; international showcases; family films; and special guest-curated programs. In addition, monthly post-screening receptions will bring together the Los Angeles creative community by offering a gathering place for film lovers, artists and the general public. The current LACMA film program, as well as Film Independent’s year-round Film Series will continue through mid-September. Additionally, LACMA will continue its Tuesday matinee series and film programs presented in conjunction with special exhibitions.”

So it looks like we can say goodbye to full classic retrospectives like the recent Renoir (18 films) and Lubitsch (16), during which films like Trouble in Paradise sold out the Bing Theatre’s 600 seats. This kind of programming is rare in America–even film festivals can’t go that deep. Birnie tracked down a series of films that influenced photographer Diane Arbus, revealing the 60s tabloid world she lived in. He booked several series featuring film noir cinematographers. The museum wants to move into booking more independent filmmaker artists and events programming. Which is where Mitchell comes in.

Mitchell may have a vision for this LACMA gig. And he could do wonderful things for the program, which is what LA film lovers really care about. But it’s also important to preserve the legacy of classic programming and the loyal following the film department has developed over the years, even though the department ran on a shoe-string. Govan has stars in his eyes and wants celebrities — so far this year Jane Fonda, Sissy Spacek, Catherine Deneuve and Jacqueline Bisset have appeared on the LACMA stage. And the Bing may be refurbished with new seats, projectors and screen as part of LACMA’s long-stalled film facelift.

Well, they’re hiring a celebrity in Mitchell. But film curating is more than picking movies to show — it’s licensing, getting releases, cajoling studios into giving up their best prints, insurance, shipping — at a time when studios and archives are cutting their budgets for reprinting, restoring and sharing films. You have to be a diplomat and an archaeologist to find the films, as well as rely on trusted relationships. You have to know where the bodies– and films–are buried. In other words, you really have to do your homework and be a details person. Those duties will largely be filled by the person who really does work for LACMA’s film department, Birnie’s long-time second-in-command, Bernardo Rondeau.

What should give Govan pause are Mitchell’s skills as an administrator/manager/organizer. As I hear it, the museum will add a secretary/assistant to its minimal department budget of about $150,000, and will pay Mitchell handsomely, sending him to film festivals around the world, thus upping the budget to some $400,000. As I have reported before, managing money, time and commitments is not Mitchell’s strong suit, nor is meeting deadlines. That’s why he has left or lost one job after another, from NPR to the New York Times. Famously, he never turned up for a job he had accepted at the L.A. Times, nor for a job as a development exec for Sony.

Will Mitchell deliver? If he plays his cards right he’ll bring in a whole new audience–as LACMA is pushing hard for the MoMA-originated Tim Burton exhibit to do. In the meantime, this July LACMA will showcase the audience hits of the past 14 years: it starts with F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and ends, fittingly, with Japan’s Late Autumn.

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