The Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures is finally ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
This is not to say the long-gestating museum is ready to open. Far from it. That event isn’t scheduled until sometime in 2019, although the original projection was for this year. Logistical, political, and practical considerations interrupted that plan, but today the Academy is revealing the in-progress construction and design at a press conference and splashy media tour on the site with comments from new Academy President John Bailey, Museum Campaign Chair Bob Iger, Museum Committee Chair Kathleen Kennedy, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Director of the Museum Kerry Brougher.
The Academy confirmed this morning that it’s also set to announcee a $50 million gift from Haim and Cheryl Saban and that the former May Co. building housing part of the new museum will be named the Saban Building. Saban has been very good to the town’s various Academies, as the couple also gave a significant donation (reportedly $5 million) to the Television Academy’s new building in 2015, now named the Saban Media Center. The Motion Picture Academy also announced they are creating a Board Of Trustees (separate from its own Board Of Governors) to oversee the museum that will be chaired by NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer.
It was actually Brougher who gave me an early sneak peek and private hardhat tour of the site just a few weeks ago at the former home of the May Co. on the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire where the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art is located (and also deeply connected to this project). Spectacular is the word for the view from the top floor where you see a panorama of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Hills (including the Hollywood sign) as well as exciting plans for what is clearly laid out as not just a place to shelve artifacts like Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers (which is what I wrongly originally thought), but a much more ambitious vision, a watering hole for cineastes and even Joe Popcorn types to drink up the language and culture of film in a single place like no other that has ever existed in the city. There will be numerous film programs and special exhibitions either brought in or shipped out to other world class museums.
A permanent core exhibition designed by two-time Oscar winning Production Designer Rick Carter (The Avatar, Lincoln) and the London based firm of Gainsbury & Whiting will cover the entire evolution of filmmaking and take up the second and third floors of the new museum (including sets, costumes, props, interactive elements involving image and sound etc).
At least that is the way it was explained to me by Brougher as he took me floor to floor and unveiled the vision, some of which he himself hadn’t seen at that point in the progression of the project. And this being the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences there will also be a permanent exhibition on the third floor that features the “Oscars Experience”, a kind of amusement park style attraction that uses technology to place the visitor on the red carpet and Oscar stage, allowing them to accept a “real” Academy Award.
There was a long period where nothing seemed to be happening on the site as most of the work was still being done, out of view, on the foundation and underground. As Bailey explained when I spoke to him shortly after his election in August the site finally took flight when the tough seismic research and subterranean work began shifting visibly to above the ground construction, showing real progress. The technical term is called “bringing up the grade.” According to Bailey, “it is now going to be very fast, very visible, and very dramatic”. And both he and Brougher told me they think the fundraising campaign will also get an added boost as potential donors can actually drive by and see real progress.
The Academy admits to a goal of raising $388 million to “support the construction of the buildings as well as its opening exhibitions and programs.” The new donation from Saban brings them to within about 25% of meeting that financial benchmark. New Board Of Trustees Chair Meyer says, “The museum has already made great strides in raising funds and developing plans for what will become an essential cultural destination for Los Angeles. It is an honor to be part of such a significant project”.
The progress that will be displayed today is a heartening development for a project that has only been a glimmer in the Academy’s eye for decades, a dream of many, and a target for controversy as the budget kept ballooning and some key players came and went. Clearly by showcasing it the way the Academy is doing today they are attempting to put the problems and negative press in the back mirror and move full speed ahead. It is probably no accident that the first general Academy membership meeting in five years is taking place tomorrow night, right after this very public unveiling. I am told the agenda for that meeting includes discussion of Oscar season, voting, governance , and – you guessed it – the Museum. The Academy brain trust will be able to point to this visible progress as detailed in numerous press reports.
Brougher told me his vision is to give the visitors to the Museum a real behind the scenes feel for everything movies, and an interactive experience. I pointed out what the remarkable Museum of the Moving Image achieves in Queens, New York and he agreed that is part of the idea for this one, but the ambition is even higher. He mentioned that the museum’s 300,000 square feet will range up to six stories (much of it preserved from the original interior design of the May Co. for those Angelenos who remember the department store as I do when my father worked there as sporting goods buyer). There will be 50,000 square feet of permanent and temporary exhibition galleries, an education studio, two state of the art theatres (one will be 1,000 seats and ideal for big premieres and other tony events, while the other seats 288 like the Academy’s intimate Vine St theatre and is envisioned as a kind of “cinematheque” for more focused and sophisticated screening series- something Brougher was really jonesing for).
All of this has been the vision of Renzo Piano who has designed the two unique building structures that make up the entire site including the original May building which is protected historically by the city of Los Angeles and subject to certain restrictions in the re-design here, as well as the spherical addition with the big theatre and glass dome (with specialty glass fabricated and shipped from Austria). It will appear ultimately almost like a space ship taking off as there won’t be visible support beams as there are now while construction continues. The plan is to remove them, even as they seem to be holding it up when you look at it in this primitive state. It is virtually untested in terms of its design and unlike any other building in the city.
In terms of the actual real treasures of the industry’s storied past the Academy says it has been actively acquiring stuff for the past decade or so and they estimate their holdings now at about 2,500 items covering the landscape of motion picture history. These include the aforementioned Ruby Slippers (at least one of the pairs) from The Wizard Of Oz that were originally estimated to sell for $2M to $3M from auction house Profiles In History but instead were swooped up as an early buy for the Academy Museum by a consortium of “angels” led by Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio for an undisclosed sum five years ago.
Also in the Academy’s growing collection are the doors to Rick’s Cafe Americain from Casablanca, recently acquired in May at another Profiles In History auction; numerous items from the Shirley Temple collection; the original Steadicam; the Aires 1B spaceship model from 2001: A Space Odyssey (which the Academy acquired at an auction for about $344,000 as I reported in March of 2015); a full sized shark model from the original mold used on Jaws; a creature head from Alien; and a whole bunch of handmade characters from Laika’s animated films including Coraline, Boxtrolls, ParaNorman and Kubo And The Two Strings. This is all in addition to the already impressive Academy collection that will be called into use to fill this vast space and includes a mouthwatering (for a rabid collector like me at least) 50,000 posters, 12 million photographs, 80,000 screenplays, and 20,000 production and costume design drawings to name just a few of their holdings that also include more than 1,600 special collections from stars and filmmakers like Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock.
Of course even with all of this there could have been so much more had the Academy teamed with the likes of legendary Hollywood collectors like Debbie Reynolds who came to previous administrations dangling her treasure trove but, alas, never got a deal. She eventually sold off most of her remarkable collection before her death last year. It is now in the hands of private collectors around the world.
Timing is everything, but what the Academy plans for this promising space is bigger than mere material items. It promises to be a celebration of movies in every way possible, ground zero for film lovers , so I hold out great hope that it does just that. To be continued.