Los Angeles’ New Movie Museum

The world’s movie capital gets a film museum. It only took 100 years.

The 1939 May Company department store, a streamline moderne landmark in L.A.’s Miracle Mile district, has been meticulously renovated and will feature exhibition space, a café, a restaurant, and project studios.
The 1939 May Company department store, a streamline moderne landmark in L.A.’s Miracle Mile district, has been meticulously renovated and will feature exhibition space, a café, a restaurant, and project studios.
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Kerry Brougher remembers watching The Wizard of Oz on a black-and-white TV as a kid and missing the vibrant Technicolor beauty of the classic 1939 film. The new museum he has been overseeing will make up for what he—and others—missed.

When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens in Los Angeles’s Miracle Mile district next year, the first exhibit that visitors encounter, in the lobby and an adjoining room, will offer a startling contrast. “You’ll walk through Dorothy’s Kansas house all in sepia,” says founding director Brougher, “and then come out into the gallery, which will be a partial re-creation of Munchkinland.”

“It’s a bit of a metaphor for the whole museum,” says Brougher. “It’s about this little girl who travels from reality into a dreamscape. She goes through adventures there, and then she returns home with more knowledge than when she left. A film museum has to be something like that: You travel from reality to these exhibitions that are about the making of dreams, and are a bit dreamlike themselves. Then, hopefully, when you come out, you’ve gained more knowledge and appreciation of the art form than you had when you went in.”

Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a Cinerama camera.
Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a Cinerama camera.
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It’s a lofty goal, and one that hasn’t been easy to reach. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the museum, is best known for producing the Oscars. It makes millions on the annual telecast and has spent many more of them building this long-awaited institution—an estimated $400 million at last count, with a bevy of famous names making sizable donations to the project.

A rendering of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. A 130-foot-tall orb, designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano, will house the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater.
A rendering of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. A 130-foot-tall orb, designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano, will house the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater.
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Since construction began in 2015, the opening, originally set for 2017, has been pushed to next year. The granting of a certificate of occupancy has been delayed, says Brougher, and keeping up with the technological bells and whistles involved in getting a five-story, 300,000-square-foot complex up and running has been challenging. “We want to leave plenty of time to do testing of equipment and burn-in periods,” he says. And after all, five years of waiting pales in comparison with the century it has taken Hollywood to build a museum that pays homage to the cinematic art form it made famous.

Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a flip book by German animator-filmmaker Oskar Fischinger.
Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a flip book by German animator-filmmaker Oskar Fischinger.
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Designed by the Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano—known for Paris’s Pompidou Centre and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City—the museum is composed of two structures that blend the old and the new. The main building is the long-defunct, painstakingly restored 1939 May Company department store, a celebrated example of streamline moderne architecture. Renamed the Saban Building, it will house exhibition space, a 288-seat theater, futuristic project venues for filmmakers and multimedia artists, a restaurant, a café, and a museum shop. Workers replaced nearly 40 percent of the building’s 24-karat-gold mosaic tiles with fresh ones from the original maker in Venice, Italy; the new limestone facing comes from a Texas quarry near the one that provided the original stone. Behind the Saban, topped by a piazza with panoramic views of the Hollywood Hills, Piano has constructed a spectacular 130-foot-tall concrete-and-glass orb that looks like a floating spaceship. Its 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater will be able to project any kind of film—even the difficult-to-screen, highly flammable and fragile nitrate from the early 20th century.

Constructing the concrete-and-steel sphere that houses the David Geffen Theater, which will feature daily screenings and the capability to project any kind of film. The glass dome was fabricated in Steyr, Austria, by Saint-Gobain.
Constructing the concrete-and-steel sphere that houses the David Geffen Theater, which will feature daily screenings and the capability to project any kind of film. The glass dome was fabricated in Steyr, Austria, by Saint-Gobain.
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The museum’s first rotating exhibit will be devoted to the artistry of the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. “We wanted to come out of the gate with something that wasn’t Hollywood oriented,” says Brougher, who recently announced he is leaving the museum (at press time a successor had yet to be named). “Being part of the academy is terrific. There’s a lot of cachet with that. But it also comes with having to clear hurdles in which people could potentially think of us as an Oscars museum or just being about Hollywood. We wanted to make sure people understood that we’re international in scope.”

Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939).
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The Juvenile Oscar awarded to Shirley Temple for the eight films she made in 1934.
The Juvenile Oscar awarded to Shirley Temple
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for the eight films she made in 1934.

That means exhibits on the Lumière brothers will share space with exhibits on lesser-known but no-less-pioneering filmmakers like Alice Guy-Blaché and Mabel Normand. The academy, recently the target of #OscarsSoWhite and other diversity-related backlashes, will be mounting an exhibit focused on black cinema from 1900 to 1970. “We worked with an inclusion committee, and it was a very collaborative process,” says Bernardo Rondeau, the museum’s associate curator and head of film programs. “We’re telling the history of cinema, but we’re also revising it and bringing out people whose stories have not been told. The best part of it is being able to uncover objects that support and help tell that story.”

Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include an H.R. Giger–designed creature head from Alien (1979).
Items from the academy’s vast historic archives include an H.R. Giger–designed creature head from Alien (1979).
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Brougher sees the museum as a “film hub…a lively, community-based place” that not only draws visitors back but also captures the interest of young people considering a filmmaking career. To that end, the George Lucas Family Foundation endowed the museum to offer free admission to anyone under 18. “We feel strongly that that’s a really important age to catch people,” Brougher says, “to let them be creative.”

Claudia Puig is a film journalist and the president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. She wrote about the Gamble House in Alta, Issue 7.

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