Building Block


It was the most ambitious project in the history of the motion picture Academy.

A gargantuan edifice that would take up eight acres of prime Hollywood real estate. A cultural monument that promised to be as transformative as the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Now, though, plans for the Academy's $400 million movie museum are on hold and nobody is certain just when they will be up and running again.

"This is going to happen," Academy president Sid Ganis says. "It's going to take longer, but we're going to have a world-class museum in Hollywood."

But when? Despite a multiyear battle to purchase the land -- bought, as it turns out, at the top of the market -- and despite an investment of about $35 million-plus to date, there is no indication that the museum will go ahead any time soon. For insiders, the whole thing is beginning to seem eerily reminiscent of the last time the Academy explored creating a movie museum, back in the early 1960s, when it bought land near the Hollywood Bowl, hired a famed architect to design it, but saw the project founder because of one sole property owner who wouldn't budge.

This time the Academy has all the land. It just doesn't have all the money.

If completed, images of such stars as Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin and directors like D.W. Griffith will be returned to the very site where they once gave birth to the movies. But without the funds in place, and with no clear indication of where they will come from, that's a big if.

The current plans for a movie museum began in 2002, when Debbie Reynolds approached the Academy about creating a space that would house her storied collection of costumes and artifacts, according to a lengthy report in Los Angeles magazine. Treasures like the ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" were just some of the valuables that Reynolds, a movie fan as well as a star, had amassed, many of them housed in a temporary home in Las Vegas. Worried about their maintenance, Reynolds thought they would be a good fit with the Academy.

The Academy, under then-president Frank Pierson and executive director Bruce Davis, liked the idea but felt the collection might be too limited. Still, Reynolds was the spark that led to a bigger notion: They could create a spectacular museum that would dwarf smaller movie museums.

As the Academy investigated further, a vision began to take shape of a museum that would encompass the whole history of film, both that of Hollywood and the rest of the world; of a building that would be designed by a renowned architect; of an experiential palace that would allow visitors to discover just what it was like to move through a wall of light and shadows.

Industry titans Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy were brought onboard for their advice, and Jeffrey Katzenberg offered to help with the fundraising -- which could amount to about $300 million on top of the $100 million that the Academy was prepared to commit.

As a dream turned into reality, the Academy waged a protracted battle to get the land it wanted. After examining and rejecting downtown sites on Grand Avenue and at Exposition Park, it settled on a locale at Sunset and Vine, right in the heart of Hollywood.

The Academy then began the lengthy process of buying the land, which involved negotiating with not one but several owners, including the owners of a yoga studio, who resisted until the Academy upped its offer from $6 million to $13 million, far above market value.

Soon, the Academy had also hired an architect, Christian de Portzamparc.

According to the Academy's 2007 annual report, the plans called for "beautiful and functional outdoor spaces, an essential ingredient for a world-class institution in Southern California."

There were to be three "core pavilions" that would cover the development of motion pictures, how movies are made, and the history of the Academy Awards. There would be an "immersive theater" to deliver a one-of-a-kind viewing experience that would affect museumgoers "on an emotional level as well as intellectual one." There would be public programs, lectures and exhibits, but the museum would not serve as an educational institution, as had been proposed in the earliest stages.

The city estimated that the new museum would create about 160 full-time jobs.

Because of this, the Academy wasn't alone in its enthusiasm. Local politicos were thrilled about what it could mean for the ongoing development of Hollywood.

"This is the museum the neighborhood always wanted but never had," L.A. councilman Eric Garcetti explains, "a world-class museum of the highest caliber."

And it would have been, if not for the financial meltdown that struck late last year.

Now everything is frozen. After nearly eight years of development, the whole project has been put on hold.

Ganis says it makes no sense in the midst of an economic downturn to launch a $300 million capital campaign. That means there is no firm timetable for when, or even if, fundraising will proceed.

So where does the Academy go from here? The answer isn't clear, even though everyone involved says the Academy remains fully committed.

At least it owns the land, though that might prove a mixed blessing.

Most of the land acquisitions were made, in retrospect, at what was the top of the market. The Academy has invested more than $35 million, but the value of the property is carried on the books at $21.7 million. Ganis says he is aware land prices have fallen since 2006 but says over time it will prove to be very valuable.

The Academy must now wait out the financial crisis while making payments on a $27.8 million mortgage. It already has invested an additional $7.4 million since 2006, given for land and other costs.

Ganis is hopeful the museum will open by 2014. He expects the Academy will start serious fundraising by year's end or early 2010.

Garcetti says he is sure the Academy will come through: "This is a multiyear project we are well into," he says. "I'm very confident it will happen. It has been a dream for too many of us for too long and we won't let it fail."