The State of the Art House

When it comes to hip indie film theaters, OC is no LA—but LA is no NYC. Why not?

The State of the Art House

There's a "For Rent" sign on the property at 9036 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills—a stone's throw from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Writers Guild of America—and a rental listing has been online since at least as far back as mid-December. But when Beverly Hills Patch reported on Dec. 29 that the Music Hall—the circa 1938 single-screen movie palace that local, family-run chain Laemmle Theaters has been operating as a three-screen art house for four decades—is in serious danger of losing its lease in 2011 due to declining revenues, the commenters on the micro-community blog expressed a mixture of indignance, sadness and surprise.

"Without this theater, Beverly Hills has no movie theater," wrote Patch commenter Natalie Roberts. "How ironic that with the Academy of Motion Pictures almost directly across the street, we are about to lose our own movie theater."

That irony may be plain to see, but the Music Hall's troubles didn't come as much of a shock to those who had been to, or in business with, the theater recently.

The Lido shows 3D versions of
Hollywood blockbusters 
to survive
Jonathan Ho
The Lido shows 3D versions of Hollywood blockbusters to survive
The theater in a Long Beach building that first showed silent movies in 1924 relies on local support to remain open
Jonathan Ho
The theater in a Long Beach building that first showed silent movies in 1924 relies on local support to remain open

"I think that the writing's been on the wall for a good part of this year that they're on their way out," says Gary Palmucci, film booker for New York-based distributor Kino Lorber, whose foreign films often play the theater. "If that happens, it's going to create an ever-more-challenging situation for distributors who want to try to at least get some of these smaller foreign films open in LA, even if they only play for a week or two."

"The state of the art film in LA is not great, and certainly relative to New York, it's rather dire," says Greg Laemmle, who now runs the seven-screen chain that has been servicing Southern California since 1938. In a conversation shortly before New Year's Eve, Laemmle admitted that attracting attendance at the Music Hall has become such a problem. "It gets to the point where distributors are like, 'It's really not worth opening there,'" he says.

In order for the Music Hall to be able to save itself, Laemmle says, ticket revenues would have to "double or triple" during the first quarter of the year. Unless that happens—or "some wealthy individual comes and says, 'I still want there to be a movie theater in Beverly Hills. I'm going to buy the building and give these guys a subsidized rent'"—Laemmle says he and the landlord are "way too far apart to have a conversation."

Asked if the Sunset 5—once LA's flagship of indie filmgoing, now reeling from local competition and nestled within a mall that, since the vacancy of the Virgin Megastore, is hardly a hot destination—could soon fall into the same dire straits, Laemmle answered unambiguously, "Yes. That's an ongoing conversation."

After a tumultuous few years for Southern California cinephilia—during which historic theaters have fallen like dominoes; the LA County Museum of Art's repertory screening program has carried on under the threat of imminent death in the absence of significant benefactors; and AFI and LAFF, Los Angeles' two biggest non-niche film festivals, have changed geography and overhauled their identity—the death watch on the Music Hall and the potential endangerment of the Sunset 5 are the latest in a series of troubling signs that Southern California, and LA in particular, can be a less-than-hospitable market for what can be loosely defined as art cinema. In the center of the movie industry, studio film is as big a business as ever, but specialty film—independent, foreign and documentary new releases that play on 500 or fewer screens nationwide—struggles to find a foothold in a landscape that, at best, can be described as schizophrenic.

For Orange County's handful of smaller, art-film-friendly venues, the situation is similarly bleak, only more so. Edwards University in Irvine sometimes receives its hip films at the same time as its counterparts in LA, and other indie venues in OC and Long Beach are having a tougher time maintaining their unique character while keeping their doors open.

The problem is a kind of vicious cycle. Distributors are frustrated by the variance in grossing potential between high-end multiplexes such as the Arclight, and smaller operations. Dedicated cinephiles, who communicate with their counterparts in other cities via blogs and Twitter, feel LA is being shafted, as many of the hip foreign films that dominate the online conversation are unseen or barely seen locally. Exhibitors contend that when they do book the film-festival hits that critics love and highbrow film followers say they want to see at venues such as the Music Hall, no one shows up. Like Laemmle and his landlords at the Music Hall, the various parties in this cycle often seem to be too far apart to meet in the middle.

Laemmle says that relatively new, upscale competitors such as the Arclight Hollywood, the Grove and the Westside Pavilion's Landmark have put a serious dent in business at both the Music Hall and the Sunset 5.

One result is that many films that get at least a one-week run in New York screen in LA as one-night-only events—if at all. Even when screens are easy to come by, distributors of highly acclaimed, international-prize-winning, critically adored films say that opening their movies in LA doesn't always make financial sense.

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4 comments
Magic Shows in Beverly Hills
Magic Shows in Beverly Hills

Hey that's really a great post and a wonderful description out here, I really like the way things are being executed and discussed here.

Tgirl
Tgirl

LOVE the ART Theatre!

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

In 2010, I don't know if I just got lucky or if it's a regular occurence, but there were a handful of times that there were indie movies I wanted to go check out that were also available On Demand, while still in the theatre. I kind of doubt that it cuts into the theatres pockets TOO much, but it definitely kept me at home as opposed to driving to an art theatre.

 

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