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INTERVIEW | Can Elvis Mitchell Get Los Angeles to Watch Movies in a Museum?

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.”

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