The Cinecon Caper revealed in emails between Hollywood Heritage, Netflix and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s Office

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Some emails have just been released in response to a public records request by government transparency blogger Adrian Riskin of MichaelKohlhaas.org. He asked Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office for any correspondence between the councilman’s staff and anyone with netflix.com email address. You can read the emails here.

In addition to emails expressing the councilman’s desire to be helpful in addressing the streaming giant’s need for hotel rooms and apartments in Hollywood, you’ll find a fascinating email thread with Richard Adkins, president of Hollywood Heritage.

This thread helps clear up some of the mystery surrounding the rumored cancellation and last minute restoration of the 55th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival’s five-day booking at the Egyptian Theatre, a booking that we’ve heard from several sources had been salvaged through the direct intervention of Councilman O’Farrell’s office.

In his email (Subject: Additional Information on Cinecon and the petition, 7/20/2019), Mr. Adkins explains at the outset, “I would like to make it clear that Hollywood Heritage has not spoken publicly about the Cinematheque or the proposed purchase of the Egyptian Theatre.”

(We think this lack of comment on a major change of use for Hollywood’s oldest motion picture palace is unfortunate, both because Hollywood Heritage was founded in 1980 “to protect, maintain and enhance buildings and neighborhoods, natural resources, and other monuments and artifacts that exemplify or constitute a part of the historic, architectural or cultural heritage of Hollywood,” and because it is the only other Hollywood non-profit that received a landmark building as a gift with the expectation that it would be operated as a public benefit. The opinion of Hollywood Heritage on this proposed sale is in the public interest.)

Further, Richard Adkins wishes it known that he is not the same person as Richard Schave, who is circulating the petition seeking transparency around the sale of the Egyptian Theatre.

He continues: “In regards to Cinecon, Hollywood Heritage has the non-profit operator of Cinecon for the past three years. We have been associated with the festival since the museum was established inn 1985, but only began managing the festival following the passing of Robert S. Birchard who was the president of Cinecon… To be able to continue to operate, Hollywood Heritage filed a DBA with the state as operators of the festival. Select personnel at the Cinematheque have been familiar with Cinecon Classic Film Festival for almost 20 years and may not have been aware of the changeover, as we kept it low key in order not to alarm registrants, vendors and creditors… I am sure this is why there may be some unfamiliarity with our relationship to the festival, but I assure you it is now a Hollywood Heritage activity. If at all possible we would like to have notification of the return of our Egyptian dates by Wednesday [7/24/2019], so that should there be a problem, we can seek alternate venues.”

(The ellipses above are included to remove a claim made in the email that the late Bob Birchard, a dedicated film historian and preservationist who once gave a wonderful interview about lost Hollywood bookstores on our podcast, was misleading the public by operating Cinecon as a non-profit, when it was not one in good standing with the California Attorney General. We have looked far and wide for any claim ever made by Bob Birchard that Cinecon, or the parent organization Society of Cinephiles, was a non-profit, without success. To the contrary, Bob Birchard partnered with a non-profit at the end of his life to allow Cinecon to receive tax-deductible donations (see this PDF link). Since 2016, Cinecon has been operated by a non-profit, Hollywood Heritage.)

Two days later (7/22/2019) Craig Bullock, Planning Director for Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, forwards Richard Adkins’ email to London Kemp, Netflix’ Director of Corporate Real Estate:

“FYI. I wanted to share the email below regarding the petition. I would not have intervened had the people doing the petition were the same as the people doing the film festival. At my request, Richard Atkins sent this email to me to better clarify the players… it get confusing especially with multiple Richards haha”

With the air cleared, Cinecon did indeed go on as planned at the Egyptian Theatre from 8/29-9/2/2019. It was a close call for the festival, and for the hundreds of film fans, guest speakers and memorabilia vendors who purchased tickets and paid for travel and lodging, unaware that the event was hanging by a thread.

We’re glad Cinecon happened this year at its longtime home, The Egyptian Theatre. And we’re glad Los Angeles Times reporter Ryan Faughnder was able to attend Cinecon and to meet as perfect a dues-paying American Cinematheque member as Christina Rice there, so her quote can wrap up today’s front page story: “If it’s such a great thing, why does this all need to be shrouded in secrecy?”

And we’re deeply troubled that something as silly and as capricious as Netflix executives mistakenly thinking the preservationist named Richard who is petitioning the American Cinematheque to explain why they want to sell the Egyptian Theatre is the same person as the non-profit president named Richard who has no comment about the situation came thisclose to stopping Cinecon’s show from going on.

The city gave the Egyptian Theatre to the American Cinematheque for a dollar so festivals like Cinecon can have a home. We the people of Los Angeles and the wider film community deserve some honest answers before we lose this precious place. If you agree, please sign the petition, and share it with friends. You can learn more about the situation here.


Update: On September 12, two days after publication of this post containing the email in which he tells Netflix and Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office that Hollywood Heritage has made no public comment about the proposed sale, the non-profit’s president Richard Adkins made the following statement on Facebook, in which he commits to Hollywood Heritage sharing its informed opinion about the sale… after or as it closes. We understand that journalists have been reaching out to Adkins and Hollywood Heritage while reporting the story, with no response. These observations could have been helpful to them.

“The landmark Egyptian Theatre has been the focus of press attention in the last six months due to media reports of a pending transfer of ownership. At this date, and to our knowledge, no such transfer has as yet been completed and articles in the press lack sufficient detail to justify taking any position on a projected, but unexecuted, transaction. That being said, we would clearly anticipate that any such transfer of a national landmark building in a national historic register district would be reviewed with transparency by and all responsible public agencies, departments, or commissions. As the first Sid Grauman theatre in Hollywood and the site of the first gala “premiere” with searchlights and a red carpet, the Egyptian Theatre is a defining structure in our built environment and merits careful consideration in order to protect and preserve its unique architectural and cultural value not only to Hollywood, Los Angeles and America, but the world in general, which views Hollywood as a shared international cultural asset. When there is specificity and detail regarding a change in the projected operation of the theatre which may affect its future, Hollywood Heritage will be happy to share its observations and opinions on such plans, specifically as it relates to the monument, the district, and non-profit law and operation.”

In a follow up comment to someone seeking clarification, he adds: “That would be a simplification of the historic building process and this one is complicated by ownership by a non-profit. Yes, changes which require a permit are automatically reviewed for any building over 50 years of age under regulations which were designed to protect existing and potential landmarks. Painting for instance, is not a permit-necessary process. The review I was referring to has everything to do with how a non-profit steward of a historic structure has to proceed via non-profit law. A non-profit which owns or operates a landmark structure is periodically reviewed to make sure funds donated specifically for projects such as restoration are actually used for that purpose and not for staffing or other ancillary purposes. The Egyptian is a landmark, the Cinematheque is a non-profit, review of their management of the site is appropriate.”

City of Los Angeles: Restore Vermonica Now


Part One: Vermonica Vanishes – The Story So Far

In November 2017, when an alert fan clued us in 

to the disappearance of Vermonica, Sheila Klein’s beloved vintage street light installation in East Hollywood, we provided the artist with a platform here on our blog to make a statement.

Vermonica’s disappearance wasn’t much of a mystery: the Bureau of Street Lighting, which owned the vintage light poles and had installed the work originally, admitted to removing it in advance of planned parking lot work, and had already reinstalled the poles in front of its Field Operations Division a block away.

Vermonica is a site specific sculpture, a response to the trauma of the 1992 L.A. Riots. Vermonica is named for Vermont and Santa Monica, the location of the Hollytron electronics store that was damaged by looters. Moving Vermonica without notifying the artist was an aesthetic crime, and using its parts to create an amateur replica compounded that crime.

Sheila Klein calls the light poles installed down the block from where Vermonica used to stand “xVermonica.”

She wanted to save Vermonica, and we thought we could help. So late in 2017, we worked to set up a meeting with numerous city officials, including Danielle Brazell (Department of Cultural Affairs), Barbara Romero (Deputy Mayor), Nicole Serrano (office of Mayor Eric Garcetti) and Christine Peters and George Hakopiants (Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office) and arts advocates Julie Silliman and Al Nodal, in order to to have a conversation with Sheila Klein (via Skype) about how to fix the situation.

It was a cordial meeting that concluded with the agreement that the city would work with the artist to restore Vermonica.

Sheila Klein Skypes into the December 2017 Vermonica meeting at Los Angeles City Hall

If you followed Vermonica in the news and read the statements from city officials or watched the Cranky Preservationist’s video, you were doubtless left feeling encouraged that the city was doing the right thing by Vermonica.

A good overview of the situation shortly after Vermonica was removed is “Can Street Art Be Moved Without Destroying It?” by Cara Giaimo (Atlas Obscura, January 24, 2018)

But as too often is the case when the city of Los Angeles is involved, despite encouraging words, time passed and nothing happened.

After a couple of months with no follow up, Sheila Klein engaged the services of lawyer Eric Bjorgum, who has litigated several cases regarding destroyed public art and who is also the President of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Bjorgum drafted a friendly introduction, reminding the players what had been said at the City Hall meeting, and seeking to get things moving towards the promised restoration and accession of Vermonica into the city’s collection.

The city responded in March 2018 by making the dubious legal claim that Vermonica is not actually a work of art, and thus not protected by artist’s rights protection law (VARA).

Since this message in March 2018, Sheila Klein has heard nothing from the city about its repeated promises to work with her to reinstall Vermonica, and to make the piece a protected part of the city’s art collection.

Which brings us up to date.

Now read on for the surprising twist, and what YOU can do to help.

Part 2: Vermonica Vanishes – The Secret History


On April 29, 2019, public transparency blogger Adrian Riskin of MichaelKohlhaas.org 

shared on Twitter that the Bureau of Street Lighting (BSL) had been added to the list of Los Angeles City departments for which California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests could be made through a web portal.


Adrian tweeted: “There must be something interesting to CPRA-fy from those folks”


Esotouric replied: “we’ll take Vermonica for $200, Alex.”

At this suggestion, 
Adrian promptly submitted a request for BSL emails related to Vermonica, and soon received a large set of files, which he has uploaded here.

Much of the material documented our efforts to set up that December 2017 City Hall meeting after Vermonica was removed, and communication with reporters about what had happened to the artwork.

But there were also smoking gun emails from BSL staff documenting the actual removal of Vermonica from the parking lot, before Sheila Klein knew her piece was threatened, before the press started asking questions.

These emails show that BSL intended to remove Vermonica from its home of 24 years to create a new installation called “Virmonica” in front of their offices a block to the east. 


If you read just two emails in the large cache, read these two:

1) City of Los Angeles Mail – Re_ Video of Street Lighting Museum for PW Newsletter.pdf
 (PDF link)


Why this email is revealing: On March 6, 2017—more than eight months before Vermonica’s removal—Ed Ebrahimian, then Director of the Bureau of Street Lighting, directs a city employee coordinating a video shoot about BSL’s collection of historic streetlights, to “dont even bring up vermonica…”


This direction is peculiar, because BSL has always been proud of Vermonica and to this day still includes photos of the work on its website. The email suggests that Ed Ebrahimian has some reason for wishing to keep Vermonica out of the public eye in early 2017.


2) From Jeff Ziliotto on Nov 17, 2017 Subject Fwd- VIRMONICA PROJECT O.T
 (PDF link)


Why this email is revealing: After Vermonica was dismantled and its elements reinstalled in front of the BSL office, Jeff Ziliotto—who worked closely with artist Sheila Klein to install the artwork in 1993—forwards emails that explicitly describe the newly installed “Virmonica” and shares photos of how it looks from various directions. The names Vermonica and “Virmonica” are used, showing clearly BSL’s familiarity with Klein’s work.

The story that BSL told about being asked by the property owner to move the streetlights out of the Staples parking lot might actually be true—there are missing emails and attachments in the material provided by the city which might prove or disprove this. But it is obvious that the BSL was not honest with Sheila Klein or with the press about what happened after Vermonica was taken apart.

The creation of “Virmonica” represents an act of bad faith, and a misuse of civic resources to destroy and abscond with a beloved piece of public art.

We are grateful to Adrian Riskin of MichaelKohlhaas.org for the information about how Los Angeles really functions that he exposes on his blog, and recommend anyone with an interest in homelessness policy, neighborhood councils, business improvement districts, policing, charter schools, murals and land use follow his work. Our city is a mess, and the California Public Records Act, in the hands of dedicated citizen-activists like Adrian, has the power to illuminate dark places and bring much needed reform.

What happened to Vermonica was bad enough when it was just the city being inept. Now that we know the truth, we join Sheila Klein in demanding swift action to right this wrong. City of Los Angeles: Restore Vermonica Now!

See where Vermonica used to be, and the xVermonica installation at the BSL field office, on September 7 on our debut Saving Los Angeles Landmarks tour.

Update June 10, 2019: Photos of xVermonica aka “Virmonica” with BSL signage designating the location as “Zilioto Ln” provided courtesy of Vermonica fan Mike Callahan. It’s infuriating that the city would install this self-promotional signage, while refusing to post the notice requested by artist Sheila Klein explaining that this is not her famous work Vermonica.

Update June 12, 2019: As of today, the Ziliotto Ln sign has been removed.

Update July 13, 2019: On NBC News, Bureau of Street Lighting admits the lights in front of their offices need to be moved to be Vermonica once more.