Click the video below to see public comment made today at Los Angeles City Hall, when the halls were filled with Perry Mason extras in 1920s period dress, lending a weird Chinatown noir air to the proceedings.
The first speaker, representing the American Cinematheque board, is consultant Ken Scherer. If his name is familiar, you might recall the central role he played a decade ago in the attempted closure of the charitable Motion Picture Home, causing life-threatening stress to elderly residents until community activists proved that the nursing home’s supposedly dire financial situation was wildly exaggerated. It takes a special kind of person to try to shutter a treasured Hollywood non-profit. Here’s hoping the American Cinematheque fares as well as the Motion Picture Home did, in the end.
Note: public comment can also be viewed from a different angle on the city website. Start at timestamp 43:17, then skip ahead to 48:37.
Since July 4, when we launched our petition seeking transparency from the American Cinematheque regarding their proposed sale of the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix, we’ve heard from so many people with strong feelings about the matter. Some of them know things, things that when strung together begin to fill in the holes in this mysterious narrative.
Of course there’s really nothing very mysterious here. The problems at the American Cinematheque are simply another facet of the crisis of non-profit stewardship that just in Los Angeles County has LACMA imploding, Gamble House and Arroyo del Rey disentangling themselves from USC in the aftermath of the Freeman House furniture theft scandal, the disappearance of the French Benevolent Society and their millions, the still unfinished Academy Museum suddenly directorless, ad nauseam.
In this chaotic moment, old fashioned concepts like fiduciary responsibility, prudent management and attention to mission statements must seem terribly old fashioned.
Nevertheless, the full picture of why the American Cinematheque board has done such an abysmal job of managing itself that the California Attorney General is investigating with the aim of possibly shutting the organization down, and why they are so desperate to sell the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix while the investigation remains ongoing, is not clear to the public. And although they don’t even own the theater and might not ever own it, the prime mover in almost everything that’s happening seems to be Netflix.
Thus, all tips from concerned parties are very interesting, even if we can’t attest to their significance or accuracy. Consider the following to be cocktail party chatter, which everyone who cares about the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre has as much right to hear as do we. Should any of it spark a connection in your mind, please let us know.
• Netflix and the American Cinematheque so firmly believed the sale would close on July 31—coincidentally the day we filmed our Spectrum News piece—that American Cinematheque staff had been directed to clear out the building, and the August calendar was empty in anticipation of the theater’s closure. The sale did not close, and an August calendar was hurriedly filled in, bookending the long-scheduled, very nearly cancelled, 55th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival.
• The urgency for Netflix to own a theater in Los Angeles County is tied to the fast approaching deadline for Academy Award nominations, specifically as it relates to Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman. The Egyptian is not a qualifying house under Oscar’s strict rules, so the film may not even have public bookings there. Instead, Netflix seeks to leverage the prestige of Hollywood’s original motion picture palace to host a constant rotation of free private screenings for voting members of the industry guilds, four days a week, all through awards season (October-January). In so doing, they would privatize a public resource 57% of the time. Why, you might ask, can’t Netflix hold guild screenings at one of their numerous buildings and leave the only cinema non-profit in Hollywood to continue its good works? That’s just one of the questions that the public has not been able to ask the American Cinematheque board, since they refuse to hold an informational meeting for members and the public.
• One reason that Netflix is feeling increasing stress over the failure of the property sale to close is their desire to install a complicated $100,000 Dolby Atmos cinema sound system inside the landmark Egyptian Theatre before planned guild screenings of The Irishman begin. A rushed installation of large audio components that need to be attached to the delicate surfaces of the Egyptian stands to potentially cause harm to the protected painted plaster surfaces. Any such major alterations must be carefully reviewed by the Office of Historic Resources and Cultural Heritage Commission to ensure they comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, with opportunity for public notification and comment, before any work begins. This is a timeline that would likely preclude installation by awards season. And as patrons, personally we would not feel comfortable sitting underneath a speaker mounted to the 97-year-old ceiling.
• Although the possible sale of the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix was announced in the trades in April 2019, the Egyptian was actually Netflix’ second choice Hollywood Boulevard motion picture palace. For months beforehand, the company was in serious negotiations with the owners of the vacant Warner-Pacific Theater, and working closely with City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office on this project before it collapsed for reasons unknown. We are saddened that Netflix has stepped away from this opportunity to revive a beautiful theater that would be a great addition to the cultural landscape, and has instead set its sights on privatizing a community treasure like the Egyptian Theatre.
• It’s perhaps just a coincidence that in March, Steven Spielberg was interviewed saying that Netflix productions should be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars, and then in April, Netflix is announced to be buying the Egyptian Theatre, with its small screening room named after Spielberg. Or maybe industry people are just petty like that.
We love the Egyptian Theatre, and for all its problems, we believe in the mission of the American Cinematheque. Won’t you stand with us as we demand transparency and challenge the notion that a secretive board and a giant corporation know what’s best for the non-profit’s members and the wider community?