Art & Culture

In Pursuit of Cinematic Excellence: Diving into the filmmaking industry’s rich heritage with Rolex

The first anniversary celebration of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures reinforces the filmmaking industry’s importance and contribution as a cultural force in the world. On an exclusive invitation by Rolex, the institution’s founding supporter, Yanni Tan travels to Los Angeles on a fascinating journey that traces the industry’s rich heritage and showcases the museum’s role in advancing the understanding, celebration and preservation of cinema.

The star-studded night of the second annual Academy Museum Gala in Los Angeles on Oct 15 wasn’t just lit by the constellations overhead, but by the presence of a dazzling line-up of movers and shakers from the international filmmaking industry.

My media group’s arrival at the entrance of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, where the gala was about to take place, was already brightened up by the appearance of Olivia Wilde, who gave fans lining the street a smile and a quick wave before heading towards the “cream carpet” for her photo call. As the runway and the cocktail reception began to throng with guests, I was pleasantly surprised to see such representation at what’s essentially a nexus of Hollywood powerbroking.

Lily Collins

Mingling over champagne right next to us were Rolex Testimonees Jenson Button, British motorsport champion, and Vijay Amritraj, Indian tennis legend turned TV commentator. Directors Spike Lee and Ron Howard, together with Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, were sitting in a booth, deep in conversation. A glowing Lily Collins floated through the crowd, which included an impressive Korean contingent, in a voluminous floral gown.

After the African-American RAISE choir signalled the signature fundraising dinner’s commencement with a rousing performance we set off for the nearly 9,000sqft Dolby Family Terrace, a glass-domed rooftop space in the museum’s Sphere building. It was a delight seeing Glenn Close and Selma Blair in close proximity on our way up.

The event was an intimate, elegant affair that honoured the toast of La La Land for their contributions to film, both past and present. Presented by Rolex, the 600-guest fete was co-chaired by Academy Award- winning actor and Academy Museum supporter Halle Berry, Academy Museum trustee and producer Jason Blum, Academy Museum trustee and screenwriter-director-producer Ryan Murphy, and Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts and George Clooney
Tilda Swinton
Steve McQueen

For her significant global cultural impact, a resplendent Julia Roberts received The Icon Award presented by none other than George Clooney, her co-star in the just-released movie Ticket to Paradise. British director Steve McQueen, best known for 12 Years A Slave, was lauded with The Vantage Award in recognition for his work in contextualising and challenging dominant narratives around cinema. The Visionary Award was accorded to British actress Tilda Swinton, whose extensive oeuvre has advanced the art of cinema.

The Pillar Award, which pays tribute to exemplary leadership and support for the museum, went to South Korean producer Miky Lee, who is the chairman of entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM responsible for bridging the East and West, as well as a wide repertoire of works both in film and television, including Parasite, Crash Landing On You and Snowpiercer.

Diana Ross

The glamorous evening was capped off with a mini concert by Diana Ross, who still sounded impeccable performing live. But the night was apparently young for the glitterati, who were huddled together in groups, socialising. They included silver- screen veterans like Laura Dern, who recently starred in Jurassic World Dominion, heart-throbs Adrien Brody, Eddie Redmayne and Selena Gomez, as well as esteemed directors Luca Guadagnino and Judd Apatow, and young celebrities like Taylor Russell and Sophie Turner.

Quan K Huy
Michelle Yeoh
Mindy Kaling

It was also lovely to see a host of familiar Asian faces, including Michelle Yeoh, Lee Byung-hun, Jung Ho-yeon, Mindy Kaling, John Cho and Quan K Huy, otherwise known to us nostalgically as Short Round of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, and the comeback star of Everything Everywhere All At Once. Chinese director, screenwriter and producer Chloé Zhao was also present.

This diversity among actors and filmmakers was echoed in the sea of behind-the-scenes executives, talents and patrons whose names I did not know. I would find out that the event production and design were overseen by magazine editor Lisa Love, the gala’s creative director, along with artistic director Raúl Àvila. Musical direction was by Keith Baptista, choreography by Jen Green, and costume direction by Jacqui Getty.

Beyond celebrating cinema and its profound cultural influence on audiences worldwide, the Academy Museum Gala’s goal was to raise funds to support the museum’s access, education and programming initiatives. It was a triumph, pulling in a cool US$10 million.

Having toured a movie production studio, the Academy Film Archives and the museum itself during the preceding days, I learnt not just the sheer immensity of the industry’s operations but its complexity. And that the present and future of cinema are informed and enriched by the past, especially with ongoing discoveries of old works and once-thought-lost reels that have come to light through the efforts of some very committed individuals.

THE PAST FOR THE FUTURE

The Academy Museum Gala wouldn’t have been such a resounding success without the unwavering support of Rolex, but the Swiss watchmaker’s participation goes far deeper. Embedded in its heritage is cinema. While its watches have played their own role on the wrists of legendary characters in numerous films (without any form of sponsorship), including multiple Oscar- winning masterpieces, the brand has for many years now become not just a close collaborator with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but a trailblazer in its own right by backing artistic and technical excellence in f ilmmaking through a series of international programmes.

Thanks to Rolex, we were privy to the little-known workings of the cinematic world during a private tour of the Academy Film Archives. To say that it was fascinating would be a huge understatement. Early in the day prior to the gala, we visited the institution’s home located in the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study – in Hollywood itself.

Dedicated to the preservation, restoration, documentation, exhibition and study of motion pictures, the archive is home to one of the most diverse and extensive motion picture collections in the world, including the personal collections of many illustrious filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant.

The academy began acquiring film material in 1929, two years after its founding, and went on to establish the archive in 1991. Today, the archive holds over 230,000 items, including all of the Academy Award-winning films in the Best Picture category, all the Oscar-winning documentaries and many Oscar-nominated films in all categories.

As an introduction at the Linwood Dunn Theater, the archive’s director Mike Pogorzelski screened a series of short clips that would, in a few minutes, show us just how much difference the art and science of film restoration made to several damaged prints. The why of it was immediately clear. For some films, it took a collaborative effort among several national institutions, including the Library of Congress, to provide their collections so that the archivist could undertake the Herculean task of patching together the final result worthy of preservation.

Pogorzelski took us through the facility – from the lobby displaying a myriad backstage photographs of major blockbusters, through a labyrinth of sound-proof and humidity- and temperature-controlled rooms with thick walls. This building is perfect for a film archive, he said, as it was originally built in 1948 for a radio and television studio.

The B Vault where cans of film are stored

After passing through the Pallet Vault that temporarily houses reels that would have just arrived from all over the world, we headed for the B Vault where we wandered past rows and rows of cans. The first can I glanced at happened to be one of my favourite horror movies of all time, The Ring. Pogorzelski said that different formats of each film is stored, explaining the varying sizes of the cans. The heaviest ones would be at the bottom of the shelves while the lightest sit at the top, so that they wouldn’t be ruined during earthquakes.

We were freezing by now, as the thermostat read 16 deg C and 35 per cent humidity – necessary for storing film reels in optimal conditions where they would last over a century. We chuckled when he revealed that this room is also where archive representatives guiding school groups would show the children what film actually looks like.

Next, at the F Vault, which stores films in video format, collections senior manager Brian Drischell briefed us on the industry’s transition from film prints into digital files over the last 20 years, and the challenges of preserving digital formats in the face of constant technological changes. It was also illuminating to discover just how far-reaching the archive’s work is and the level of collaboration the entertainment world has with academia: It has a repository for archival digital files at the University of Southern California’s supercomputing centre.

A film print given to visitors touring the Academy Film Archive

We then entered a cosy theatrette where senior film preservationist Mark Toscano screened a 16mm print of John Whitney Sr’s ground-breaking Hot House from 1951, as a showcase of the avant-garde and experimental films collected by the archive. At a small public area displaying two flatbed viewers, Pogorzelski ran a rare 35mm screen test of Greta Garbo, who famously did not look directly into the camera in her films, gazing into the screen.

We finally settled down back at the theater, where film archivist Kate Dollenmeyer took us through the archive’s commitment to acquire collections made by underrepresented communities in the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Project. I was pleasantly surprised to know that works by Pacific islanders and people with disabilities were also included.

The Academy Film Archive also works hand-in-hand with The Film Foundation founded by eminent director Martin Scorsese. A non-profit organisation established in 1990, it has helped to restore over 925 films, which are made accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums and educational institutions worldwide.

The foundation’s project manager Kristen Merola spoke about its World Cinema Project, which preserves and restores neglected films from around the world, with the support of Rolex. To date, 50 films from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, South America, and the Middle East have been restored, preserved and exhibited for a global audience. As films of the past offer a window into the zeitgeist of the times, it is heartening that the foundation brought back to life works as far back as 1931, and from places whose movie-making scene and historical cultural narratives remain inaccessible or little-known to most of us, such as Iran (Downpour, 1972) and India (Kalpana, 1948).

THE TIME IS NOW

During this press trip, the topic of just how the world today has never been so divisive came up several times. Yet, the many individuals we’ve met and their body of work showed us that despite the social unrest throughout the world, the film industry is banding together in earnest to encourage more diversity, inclusion and opportunities for those overlooked.

Various aspects of movie- making are showcased in the Rolex Gallery

One leading example is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which we visited in the afternoon after touring the Academy Film Archive. The woman behind it is Jacqueline Stewart, the museum’s director and president, who is also a University of Chicago professor. The institution’s inaugural artistic director before her current appointment this July, she took over the museum leadership from Bill Kramer, who had successfully launched it last September and raised over US$11 million at the opening gala, which featured a Rolex-green carpet and a performance by Lady Gaga.

If visitor numbers are anything to go by, then both executives have achieved something unprecedented and quite unexpected: Over the past year, it attracted more than 700,000 visitors, about 20 per cent more than its pandemic-adjusted goal. According to Kramer, half of the visitors were those under 40, while half self-identified as being from under-represented ethnic and racial communities. When international travel resumes in full force, we can only expect more lives to be changed by the museum.

It is easy to understand its popularity. An already iconic presence in the bustling, culturally diverse district of Mid-Wilshire, adjacent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Renzo Piano-designed attraction is seven storeys and over 48,000sqft of cinematic wonder – with various spaces named after industry greats, such as the Sidney Poitier Grand Lobby.

Exhibitions curator Jenny He, formerly from the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), would show us around in a whirlwind tour that I’d describe as breathlessly overwhelming – in a good way. There are, however, numerous galleries that would be better appreciated by both the young and old over a few days at a slower pace. We started on the ground level at the three-floor Stories of Cinema exhibition, which presents the diverse, international and complex stories of filmmakers.

Various aspects of movie- making are showcased in the Rolex Gallery

Proceeding upstairs, we explored the Rolex Gallery, which showcases modular exhibitions designed as singular journeys through different moments in film history. The space fronting the entrance features an immersive multimedia installation specially created by influential Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Titled Director’s Inspiration, this temporary exhibition is a collaborative effort with Academy Award-winning filmmakers, the first iteration of which was curated by Spike Lee, a mentor from the 2020-2022 Rolex Arts Initiative.

Further in, many aspects of moviemaking – animation techniques, special effects, artists, history and social impact – are spotlighted. We marvelled at multiple sketches, models of cartoon characters, including the original Bugs Bunny figurine made for animators to view the rabbit in 3D, and the costumes and animation celluloids for such beloved hits as E.T., Edward Scissorhands, The Terminator, Black Panther, Jurassic Park and Star Wars.

The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection exhibition sent us back in time to learn how the cinematic experience evolved from a long tradition of optical amusements and devices of wonder, from shadow play and magic lanterns, to zoetropes and the Cinématographe Lumière, the world’s first successful film projector.

A special exhibition on Black cinema

Until Apr 9, 2023, there is a special exhibition that traces the rich history of Black participation in US cinema, from its beginnings to just beyond the Civil Rights Movement. Named Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898-1971, it is an insightful showcase for those of us who grew up on mainstream American entertainment.

A Bruce Lee showcase at the Academy Museum

Talking about representation, there is also an area dedicated to the great Bruce Lee, featuring his costume from Enter the Dragon, film clips, posters and props. That was where I saw the most Asian visitors, all in awe.

The Academy Awards History gallery

And what is a trip to the Academy Museum without meeting Oscar? There are 20 historic Oscar trophies in a circular space at the Academy Awards History gallery, which then leads into a room featuring a chronology of the awards’ history from 1929 to the present. It displays artefacts from all the award-winning categories, including Halle Berry’s show-stopping red Elie Saab gown she wore when she won the Best Actress accolade at the 74th Academy Awards.

A tarot card set inspired by the macabre world of Guillermo Del Toro’s films

A must-do is The Oscars Experience, which is a hilariously fun interactive simulation that captures visitors accepting their own Oscar (it is heavy), the videos of which are then sent to their email accounts. Another is shopping at the Academy Museum Store, which stocks a mind-boggling range of movie-inspired merchandise. The current thematic collection is based on horror, and features a book on one of the directors I admire most, Guillermo Del Toro, and a tarot card set inspired by the macabre world of his most popular films Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water.

The museum also has a roster of daily film screenings, including Oscar Sundays and Family Matinees, held in the 1,000-seat David Geffen Theater and the 200-seat Ted Mann Theater. For a more focused experience, sign up for one of the many thematic programmes, from Family Days to Calm Mornings to Visual Description Tours. You could also join a drop-in tour.

PERPETUATING EXCELLENCE

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will undeniably be a focal point for cinephiles and new film buffs for years to come. During a meet-and-greet with Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we chatted about his new role, the current state of cinema, its future, and the buzz surrounding the museum’s popularity and programming.

“We’ve built the best museum and have the biggest film collection in the world. We have 10,000 academy members who are the brightest filmmakers, so that gives us the most incredible foundation to do the work we need to do,” he said. “The opportunities lie in evolving the academy post-pandemic, when so much has changed in the film industry. How do you continue to celebrate excellence? How do you create a diverse engaged community of filmmakers around the world? How do you support new filmmakers? How do you tackle theatrical versus streaming? And we have the relationships to have those conversations to create a point of view to be a unifier, since there’s a lot of bifurcation right now.”

Bill Kramer

Kramer emphasised that at this moment in time, it’s necessary to think about the academy as an international body in a bigger way. “Almost 25 per cent of our membership is international, so we’re seeing a shift in our membership that is very exciting. This feels to me like a public service job.”

He revealed that he’s already ahead of schedule in planning for the 95th Academy Awards in March 2023. Under his charge, the academy will return the show to honouring cinema. “It will focus on the celebration of movies and all the collaborative disciplines of filmmaking. That is the philosophical approach, while we’re also creating a very entertaining show.”

All this would not have been possible without tremendous support from Rolex, which is one of the academy’s most steadfast and generous patrons, added Kramer.

This relationship goes back to 2017, when two major events would cement the long-standing association: Director Martin Scorsese joined James Cameron as a Rolex Testimonee, while the brand also sealed its partnership with the academy by becoming the Exclusive Watch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Proud Sponsor of the Oscars, and Exclusive Sponsor of the Governors Awards.

“Rolex is obviously deeply committed to cinema, technology, precision, the arts and sciences, so that is very much aligned with the academy’s mission. I’m very honoured to be doing this and to have such a great partner. I think the beauty of our partnership lies in the fact it straddles the museum and everything we do at the academy. We want to create more unique moments and collaborations.”

Spike Lee at the gala

Another industry personality who had partnered Rolex is Spike Lee, whom I had the opportunity to interview. As part of Rolex’s efforts to encourage the preservation and transmission of the cinematic arts, promote excellence and celebrate progress by accompanying living legends, as well as budding talents, it launched the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2002.

The acclaimed African-American director, who also sits on the board of Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, joined this Rolex two-year mentorship programme in 2020 and took Native American director Kyle Bell under his wing. Said Lee, who received his Master’s degree from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 1982 and started teaching there as a professor in 1993, “I come from a long line of educators, and I specified to Rolex that I wanted a young Native American filmmaker. There’s a definite need for Native Americans to tell their story, which isn’t what Hollywood has made since the beginning of film and TV.”

Spike Lee’s Director’s Inspiration installation in the Rolex Gallery preceded Pedro Almodóvar’s

Lee advised his protégé on his projects, of which two were screened at the Rolex Arts Weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this September. This once-in-a- lifetime experience has inspired Bell, strengthened his confidence, and galvanised his determination to share the untold stories of his people from the Thlopthlocco tribal town in Oklahoma.

Candid about his own experience, Lee added: “I just tried to be helpful to young filmmakers and not crush them. I think there’s a way that you could give valid criticism without destroying their confidence. When I first began to teach, I started to understand that if you’re a teacher and you don’t learn from your students, then you’re not doing a very good job. That has to go both ways.”

Referencing Lee’s “fight the power” message across some of his movies, including the Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing in 1989 and Oscar-winning Malcolm X in 1992, I asked him about what lesson he’d impart to creators who are advocating for their own communities. “Tell your story. Don’t let other people define who you are,” he said, before signing my copy of his Academy Museum- published book Spike Lee: Director’s Inspiration with “Peace and Love”.

This story first appeared in the November 2022 issue of Prestige Singapore 

Yanni Tan

Yanni Tan began her journalistic career as a rookie reporter at a local newspaper, covering lifestyle, crime and education. She has since chalked up 20 years of writing and editing experience at a variety of women's and luxury magazines, mainly in the features, travel, and watches and jewellery beats. She currently oversees both the print and digital editions of Prestige Singapore magazine, and has a keen interest in luxury lifestyle, environmental conservation, private wealth and corporate leadership.

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