The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures has been something that almost no one in Hollywood expected: an instant hit.
After an almost comical series of setbacks, the Academy Museum opened in Los Angeles in September 2021 and has since attracted more than 700,000 visitors, about 20 percent more than its pandemic-adjusted goal, according to Bill Kramer, chief executive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (For months, gallery capacity was limited.) Half of the museum’s visitors have been under 40, he added, citing attendee surveys, and half have self-identified as being from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities. Adult tickets cost $25.
“There was perhaps a slight concern, and I’m choosing my words carefully, that young people, people under the age of 40, might not be interested in film history or a cinema museum because they are streaming movies in different ways now,” Kramer said. “It has not been true, not even remotely. One of the many success stories of the museum is that it’s helping to cultivate a new generation of cinephiles.”
The bad news? The academy now has to keep the momentum going, and with a potential recession on the horizon.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how to encourage repeat visitors — building a sense of community so that, not only do people see new things when they come back again, but they also feel that they’re participating with us in creating this experience,” said Jacqueline Stewart, the Academy Museum’s president. “Our museum depends in a lot of ways on breaking down some of the barriers I think that people might have felt when they hear the term academy. There’s an assumption that it’s an elitist institution.”
The museum has sold 24,000 memberships, which cost between $100 and $1,000 annually. Additional revenue has come from hosting more than 100 private events; renting out the glass-domed terrace atop the museum’s spherical theater building runs $50,000 on top of a corporate membership, which starts at $10,000. Fanny’s, the museum’s well-reviewed restaurant, has served more than 150,000 people, according to the academy. Dishes range from $16 to $90.
The museum’s gift shop has generated more than $6 million in sales, an amount that Kramer called “beyond our wildest expectations.” An Oscar made out of Legos, which sells for $500, and the $50 catalog for the museum’s Hayao Miyazaki exhibition have been among the top sellers.
Add in philanthropic contributions and additional revenue — an opening gala generated $11 million — and the Academy Museum is comfortably covering annual operating costs while delivering returns that will ultimately be used to pay down hundreds of millions of dollars in construction debt, Kramer said.
At the very least, the museum’s rosy first-year financial picture makes it something of a rarity among nonprofit cultural institutions, many of which are still reeling from the pandemic.
By the time the seven-story museum opened last year, it was four years behind schedule. Its cost had ballooned by 90 percent, to about $480 million. Setbacks included the discovery of mastodon fossils by excavation crews, sparring architects, internecine warfare over the curatorial focus and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, academy leaders became known for one blunder after another regarding their most high-profile undertaking, the annual Oscars ceremony.
“Many began to wonder if the Academy Museum, rising as box office fell, was some bizarre hoax that would never actually be finished,” Mary McNamara, a Los Angeles Times columnist and critic, wrote last year.
Soon after opening, the museum was hit with accusations of antisemitism. While taking great care to honor the contributions of women and artists of color to the cinematic arts — achievements long overlooked in an industry historically dominated by white men — curators had excluded the mostly Jewish immigrants, white men all, who founded Hollywood. To rectify the matter, curators announced a new permanent exhibition, “Hollywoodland,” about the founding of the American film industry, specifically the lives and contributions of the Jewish studio founders; it will open in late spring.
Other upcoming exhibitions include “Director’s Inspiration: Agnès Varda,” and “The Art of Moviemaking: ‘The Godfather.’” “Casablanca,” “Boyz N the Hood” and “The Birds” will be showcased in smaller galleries.
But visitors were plentiful from the start. The museum’s retrospective of Miyazaki, the Japanese animation titan behind films like “Spirited Away” (2001), was a major draw, Stewart said. The museum also offers extensive public programs — 137 in year one, including onstage discussions with filmmakers like Spike Lee and actors like Denzel Washington. The institution also operates a separately ticketed cinematheque; more than 500 films were shown in its first year.
“I met a guy a couple of weeks ago who said it was his 83rd visit to the museum and was committed to reading every label,” Stewart said.
If nothing else, Angelenos now have somewhere to take Hollywood-fascinated visitors that does not involve the dreaded Hollywood & Highland shopping mall or the sticky, stinky Walk of Fame.
What the future holds is anyone’s guess. Tourism officials hope that 2023 will mark a full recovery for Los Angeles, which would benefit the museum; the number of visitors to the area, particularly from overseas, is still far behind prepandemic levels. But a recession could just as easily stymie growth.
The Academy Museum will also face increased competition in the years ahead. The adjacent Los Angeles County Museum of Art is in the middle of a colossal expansion. And construction has begun near downtown Los Angeles on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which will house items collected by George Lucas, including 20th-century American illustrations, comic books, costumes, storyboards, stage sets and other archival material from “Star Wars” and other movies.
For the academy, the continued financial health of its museum is of crucial importance. The construction debt is secured by the academy’s gross revenues, the vast majority of which come from the annual Oscars telecast. But awards revenue — after rising for decades — declined 10.8 percent in the academy’s 2021 fiscal year, reflecting plummeting Oscars viewership. Kramer, facing the likelihood that broadcast rights for the ceremony will continue to decline in value, perhaps dramatically, is scrambling to diversify the organization’s revenue streams.
“It’s what any healthy nonprofit needs to do and should do,” Kramer said, “and the museum is helping us greatly with that.”