Inside the Long-Awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Though beset by delays, the Renzo Piano–designed museum makes for a stunning addition to the cultural landscape along Museum Row in Los Angeles.

Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photography by Josh White

Almost one decade ago, it was announced that work had begun on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Slated to become the largest institution in the U.S. devoted to filmmaking, the museum promised immersive, dynamic programming that illuminates the infinite stories of cinema—their art, technology, artists, history and social impact, even when critical or uncomfortable. The project, located a stone’s throw from LACMA and the Petersen Automotive Museum along the city’s famed Miracle Mile, ended up facing a number of setbacks. Financing problems, construction delays, and the pandemic continually pushed back the museum’s opening date, which is now September 30. 

The museum sits inside the former May Company department store, a 1939 Streamline Moderne structure newly christened the Saban Building. The Motion Academy enlisted the Italian architect Renzo Piano to preserve and breathe new life into the aging building, which is marked by a distinctive golden cylinder on its facade. “The Academy Museum gives us the opportunity to honor the past while creating a building for the future—in fact, for the possibility of many futures,” Piano said in a statement. “The historic Saban Building is a wonderful example of Streamline Moderne style, which preserves the way people envisioned the future in 1939.” To start, he replaced 35 percent of the cylinder’s 350,000 gold leaf mosaic tiles from the original manufacturer in Italy. Other interventions include restoring the facade with Texas limestone and completing a series of interior renovations that create space for a shop, restaurant, and 50,000 square feet of gallery space designed in collaboration with local firm wHY Architecture. 

Rendering courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop

That journey into the future, so to speak, materializes when visitors cross two elevated walkways into a giant glass-and-concrete spherical building next door. The structure, perhaps unimaginatively called the Sphere and resembling a giant snowglobe, will house screening theaters topped by a spacious terrace sheltered under a curving glass roof. Besides offering views of the Hollywood Hills, the 45,000-square-foot dome houses a 1,000-seat blood-red theater, named after DreamWorks founder David Geffen, that will host major film screenings. 

“The Sphere Building is a form that seems to lift off the ground into the perpetual, imaginary voyage through space and time that is moviegoing,” says Piano, fully aware of the structure’s sci-fi influences. “By connecting these two experiences, we create something that is itself like a movie. You go from sequence to sequence, from the exhibition galleries to the film theater and the terrace, with everything blending into one experience.” 

Introduction to “Stories of Cinema” in the Spielberg Family Gallery, located in the Academy Museum’s Grand Lobby. Rendering courtesy of wHY Architecture
Encounters gallery in “Stories of Cinema.” Rendering courtesy of wHY Architecture

On that note, experiences deeply inform the museum’s permanent programming. Taking over the first three floors is an immersive show, called “Stories of Cinema,” that traces the evolution of film across directing, screenwriting, cinematography, audio, costume design, and special effects through the Academy’s vast collection of film memorabilia. While it makes some tourist-minded concessions, devoted cinephiles will still find much to love. Viewers first encounter the show within a soaring, glass-walled display in the lobby that segues into the Wanda and Rolex Galleries upstairs, which feature an immersive “Oscars experience,” costume vitrines, and a room devoted entirely to The Wizard of Oz. Guest curators, such as Spike Lee and Pedro Almodóvar, will refresh the programming about once a year. 

Temporary shows take over the top floors. Kicking things off is a retrospective of Hayao Miyazaki—the first major stateside showcase of the Japanese filmmaker’s beloved oeuvre. Organized with Studio Ghibli, it features more than 300 original image boards, characters, layouts, backgrounds, and posters from Miyazaki’s archives, including pieces on public view outside Japan for the first time. 

Photography by Josh White
Photography by Josh White

Programming will also touch upon the film industry’s blindspots, especially when it comes to diversity. “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1989–1971” will open the following year to address the entertainment industry’s deeply rooted racism and history of exclusion. “We didn’t want these conversations to sit in a separate gallery—we wanted to confront them and contextualize them,” director Bill Kramer said at last week’s welcome address, noting how the exhibitions will tackle problematic casting, blackface, and sexism in animation. 

Until the opening, the museum will roll out virtual programs such as film screenings, panel discussions, and workshops starting in late April, timed to the 93rd Oscars ceremony. “The [museum] has long been a dream of the Academy, the city of Los Angeles, and the film industry,” Kramer continues. “We’re prepared to open and fully ready to open. We’ll continue to monitor the health and safety components of opening in September, but we’re feeling very good about it.”

Photography by Iwan Baan
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