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Inside the Oscar Museum's Past Troubles and Uncertain Future

With ambitious plans still on hold, the Academy looks to address concerns over the deterioration of its Hollywood site.

Chris Godley

The evidence of the trouble  that surrounds Hollywood's long, stilted effort to build an ambitious movie museum is easy to spot, right on a shabby stretch of Vine Street in the heart of Tinseltown.

There, a hulking (and fenced-in) former Big Lots store sits vacant, its parking lot sprouting weeds. Next door, a deserted postproduction facility idles, its windows boarded up. What the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes one day will become an L.A. cultural monument -- and an ode to cinema -- is now an eyesore in the view of Hollywood stakeholders.

"I wish they would take better care of it," says John Tronson, a commercial real estate broker with Ramsey-Shilling who specializes in Hollywood. "The properties are a blight."

Clearly, things haven't gone as planned. In 2005, the Academy began the painstaking process of acquiring property in Hollywood for its $400 million museum project, which would house a trove of artifacts and offer public programs, lectures and revolving exhibitions to cater to both locals and tourists. During the next few years, it assembled the multi-acre site off of Vine at the cost of as much as $50 million.

AMPAS hired renowned French architect Christian de Portzamparc, who designed the LVMH Tower in New York, to create a sleek, modern edifice, which, when joined with the Academy's adjacent Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, would create an 8.25-acre campus. Plans were shared with community groups and excitement grew: Hollywood, which had gone through this in the mid-1960s when Los Angeles County attempted to build a museum near the Hollywood Bowl, would finally be getting its coveted movie museum.

But there would be no glitzy, celebrity-hosted fundraising galas. Just before a significant capital campaign would have begun, the project was derailed by the economic collapse that began in earnest in fall 2008. Suddenly, a first-rate AMPAS museum wasn't a priority for Hollywood luminaries who once may have been willing to scratch out sizable checks, and the museum has since been on hold. (Other nearby projects also have been delayed because of the downturn, including the Columbia Square project on Sunset Boulevard, which would include a hotel and residences.)

These days, the Academy's roughly 3.5-acre site -- located across from ArcLight Cinemas, less than a mile from the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are handed out -- sits vacant. The Academy acknowledges the property's poor condition and says it's working to improve it.

"We know we can't leave it the way it is -- that's not from any external pressure," says Tom Sherak, president of AMPAS. "We need to do something. We've started."

Indeed, the Academy, which generates the vast majority of its revenue from the sale of the broadcast rights to the Oscar show, has plans for several improvements: Some buildings at the site will be razed, and it hopes to create an exhibition space in one of the remaining structures. AMPAS already has applied for demolition permits with the city. And there is discussion about hosting occasional outdoor screenings.

Also, the Academy -- despite its shortage of cash to build its project in full -- would like to acquire an 8,700-square-foot dirt lot that is adjacent to the Big Lots and is owned by the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles. In the de Portzamparc design, the museum entrance is located at the site of the vacant parcel, which once was home to an outpost of KFC; it is expected that the CRA will sell the property to AMPAS. The Academy declined to discuss the cost of its planned upgrades. "I can tell you this, we have approved cleaning up the property," Sherak says. "We don't feel comfortable at all with that property being an eyesore in the community. We have designated money to start."

However, the Academy, which maintains its headquarters about five miles away in Beverly Hills, does not know when the improvements will be completed. The uncertainty rankles some. "People ask me all the time, 'What is happening over there?'" says George Abou-Daoud, who owns several eateries near the AMPAS site, including the Bowery. "People notice that everything on the block is closed."

Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti says he plans to speak with AMPAS about maintaining the property and "solutions that will ensure it is cleaned on a regular basis."

The Academy acquired the parcels, which housed Big Lots, Golden Bridge Yoga studio and the Post Group postproduction firm, among other businesses, at the top of the market. THR reported in 2009 that the owners of Golden Bridge resisted a sale until AMPAS upped its offer from $6 million to $13 million. THR analysis of tax records indicates that the Academy spent between $45 million and $50 million to acquire the entire property (area real estate brokers verified the calculations). AMPAS declined to discuss its acquisition costs.

One of the Academy's purchases was the parcel that housed repair shop Funk Brothers Automotive. The owner (who asked that he not be identified) wouldn't discuss the terms of the late 2007 sale but says he was disappointed to learn that the museum plans are on hold, particularly because his company's move to La Brea Avenue was costly and affected business.

Though Hollywood players like Tronson and Abou-Daoud are frustrated by the lack of progress at the site, boosters believe the museum would be catalytic. "There is a strong desire to have this museum here. If it takes longer than originally hoped for, that is fine," says Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. "As long as it happens." Though the goal of a full-scale museum remains, it has been on hold since 2009. Artifacts and objects that might be destined for the museum remain in storage. It's not known whether the project would be built as planned; it's unclear, for example, whether de Portzamparc's design would be retained. The architect did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

In February 2009, Sid Ganis, then the Academy president, told THR that he hoped the museum would open by 2014. Sherak is less committal. "At this point, I don't know -- I really don't know," he says. "I know that financially, it can't be done yet."          

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller

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