309: Art Cinemas in Crisis

Archival Spaces 309

Only in Theatres (2022)

Uploaded 25 November 2022

Laemmle Cinemas, Pasadena

There is a shot in the new documentary Only in Theatres of Greg Laemmle, the CEO of the storied Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles, patiently putting up new lettering on the marquee, a cumbersome still analog process. The image is not only emblematic of Laemmle’s hands-on approach to running one of the oldest, continuously operating art house circuits in the country, but also his central role in this film. Raphael Sbarge’s Only in Theatres begins in the summer of 2019 when Laemmle announced that he was selling the family’s chain of nine theatres and 41 screens, only a year after they had broken ground on new cinemas in Newhall and Asuza, CA. The business was off 30%, due to new streaming channels, so the family was losing money. This is a film about the crisis in film exhibition, even before the COVID-pandemic generated an even deeper crisis. That the film ends on a hopeful note is a testament to the cinephilia of Greg Laemmle and his audience.

Sigmund Laemmle with sons Kurt and Max
Carl Laemmle (Center) with Max Laemmle, 1928
Max Laemmle

Carl Laemmle who had founded the Universal Film Co. in 1912, ran the studio until his removal in 1936, after which the diminutive film pioneer focused on helping his relatives and many others to get out of Nazi Germany. Among those refugees were his brother Sigmund Siegfried Laemmle and his two sons, Max and Kurt. Kurt was the first to get into the film exhibition business, purchasing the Ritz Theatre in Lowell, IN. in 1935 (sold in 1942). Max Laemmle, who had run Universal’s Paris operations arrived in L.A. in 1938, after which the Laemmle brothers opened the Franklin cinema in Highland Park, just north of downtown Los Angeles. The business eventually grew to include five neighborhood movie theaters. However, television in the late 1950s caused the chain to shrink to a single cinema, the Los Feliz Theatre, and the departure of Kurt Laemmle. In the 1960s, Max Laemmle’s son, Robert Laemmle joined the company, and the chain began specializing in art films, foreign films, and other independents. In the 1970s and the 1990s, the Laemmles expanded to include locations in Pasadena, Westwood, Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley, and downtown Los Angeles.

Frankin Cinema, Los Felz
Laemmle Royale, former Tivoli, West L.A.

In 1988, Gregory Laemmle joined the company, bringing a third generation of the Laemmle family to the operation, while Robert remained the nominal owner. Greg opened the Sunset 5 in 1992 and the Laemmle Pasadena in 1999, the former the most successful new art house in the country.  By the time Greg offered the chain for sale, it owned Claremont 5, the Fine Arts center on Wilshire Blvd., The Glendale, The Santa Monica Film Center, the Music Hall, the Noho 7 in North Hollywood, The Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, the Royal on Santa Monica, and the Town Center 5 in Encino, CA. While The Sunset was sold to Sundance in 2012, the Fine Arts was abandoned in October 2019, and the Pasadena cinemas were sold to the Landmark chain in May 2020.

Robert Laemmle, 2013
Robert and Greg Laemmle

In Only in Theatres, numerous filmmakers and critics attest to the incredible influence the Laemmle cinemas have had on the film culture in Los Angeles, bringing European art films and American independents to a city that only supported the product of the commercial studios. Among those interviewed are Ava DuVernay and Alison Anders, both of whom credited the Laemmle’s with their becoming filmmakers, film critics Leonard Maltin, Kenneth Turan, Kevin Thomas, and film historians Michael Renov and Ross Melnick, all of whom attest that the Laemmle Theatres enriched the film landscape by taking financial risks on films that were not necessarily box office blockbusters.  

The documentary returns repeatedly to Greg Laemmle and his wife, Trisha, who nervously await offers in fall 2019, obsessing about their finances, and Trisha worrying that Greg was ruining his health, due to the strain of operating the theatres without the help of their three sons, who had no interest in taking over the business. Greg mentions over and over the pressure of the family legacy to support art cinema and serve a community in danger of completely disappearing. Finally, on Christmas Eve at a traditional screening of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Greg Laemmle announced that the family would not sell the chain. Then the pandemic hit and everything shut down. In order to keep going, Laemmle divested some of the properties, but also eventually had to sell his L.A. home, moving to Seattle in January 2021. Finally, in April 2021, the theatres reopened, including the new Laemmle Newhall. Greg Laemmle noted that the chain was in a good position and ready to grow again. Seldom has a film about a film exhibitor been as intensely personal struggle as Only in Theatres; we witness Greg Laemmle’s anguish and suffer with him.

Only in Theatres opened on 18 November in Laemmle’s cinemas, after a sneak preview on the 13th at the Laemmle Royale, co-hosted by Hilary Helllstein and the L.A. Jewish Film festival. Like art cinema exhibitors Dan Talbot, Walter Reade, Don Rugoff in New York, the Laemmle’s belong to a rare breed of film showmen who are not just about the money, but about loving movies.    

Marquee, Laemmle Cinema, Newhall

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: