LACMA's New Film Curator Reveals a Star-Studded Plan For Revitalizing the Program

10:06 AM PST 10/13/2011 by Todd McCarthy
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Elvis Mitchell talked to THR about embracing Hollywood, what will be showing (Jason Reitman directing live!) and the institution that gave him his first paying job in town.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

"I guess in lieu of a football team, we'll have a film museum and a film program," Elvis Mitchell joked about the sudden ascendancy of film culture in Los Angeles' Mid-Wilshire district as plans for a new sports stadium a few miles east remain unsettled. After prior signals that he wished to phase cinema out of the institution, Los Angeles Country Museum of Art director Michael Govan has done an about-face, entering into an agreement to provide a home for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' long-anticipated film museum in the adjacent former May Company building and hiring Mitchell to revitalize film programing at LACMA's Bing Theater.

Although, for the first year, film programs will be offered only once a week, on Thursday nights (in addition to the traditional 1 p.m. Tuesday matinees, which will continue), Mitchell is commencing his tenure with a flurry of events beginning Oct. 13 with the world premiere of Bruce Robinson's adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp. After screenings of festival favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene on Oct. 16 and Chaplin's Modern Times on Oct. 18, an innovation will be offered Oct. 20 in the form of Jason Reitman directing a live reading of The Breakfast Club with an all-star cast (the director plans to announce one actor per day on Twitter). Reitman will return in November to oversee a live read of Bull Durham and again in December to do the same for The Princess Bride.

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If all this appears to steer the film program heavily in a Hollywood direction, Mitchell argues that it's important to start things off on a starry note. "You can get people to the opening of anything in L.A., but what I care about is, will they be here in August 2013? It will be a delicate balance. I want people to be exposed to art from everywhere in an exciting way. With the live reads, it was Jason's idea; he said, 'I have just the thing for you.' It's unusual to get a leading director in his prime to make a commitment like this, so of course I said yes. I think it will help convey the excitement people have about making movies."

A former film critic for The New York Times and other publications, and host for 15 years of KCRW's The Treatment on radio, Mitchell allowed that, "I've enjoyed living in New York for the last 10 years, where there's a real film culture, with the Film Forum and Lincoln Center. I love the Museum of the Moving Image, and I like the idea of bringing artifacts of the cinema into a museum."

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LACMA's competition for viewers' attention east of La Cienega includes the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, the New Beverly (now owned by Mitchell's pal, Quentin Tarantino, who recently brought Jackie Brown to the museum for a dry run) and Cinefamily. "But they all seem to emphasize genre," mused Mitchell, "and I need to appeal to a bigger constituency. It's got to be self-supporting."

If anything, he would like to emulate the successful tenure of his original mentor in the field, Ron Haver, the great preservationist and historian who oversaw film programming at LACMA for more than 20 years before his death in 1993. Mitchell, 52, recalled that, after moving here from his native Detroit in 1980, "My first paying job in Los Angeles was taking tickets at the Bing under Ron Haver. He thought like a showman. He was a big, charismatic guy; he cut a bigger swath than most film programmers, but so did LACMA then, compared to other places."

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Haver worked to make the LACMA a real catalyst for film, with all types coming to see films at the museum then: directors, studio people, actors, writers. "I'd be sitting in his office, and Robert Towne would come in a talk for an hour," says Mitchell. "Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd came by."

He adds: "Times have changed, but what I'd love to be able to do is make it like that again. I want it to be a relevant destination that people think about -- that when they're making their plans for the weekend, they check to see what we're doing. Tarantino thinks the Bing is a great room for comedy. We're in a great neighborhood, it's got parking, and there are lots of people who could get involved. I can't not think of Ron in doing this job."

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