State of the Art House 

In the capital of cinema, specialty films are losing ground (but there are glimmers of hope)

Thursday, Feb 3 2011

There's no "For Rent" sign on the Music Hall at 9036 Wilshire Blvd., a stone's throw from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Writers Guild of America, but an online listing updated on Jan. 13 says the asking price is $14,500 a month for 10,400 square feet.

When the Beverly Hills Patch reported the theater's likely demise on Dec. 29, commenters on the blog expressed a mixture of indignation, sadness and surprise. "Without this theater, Beverly Hills has no movie theater," wrote Natalie Roberts.

"How ironic that with the Academy of Motion [Picture Arts & Sciences] almost directly across the street, we are about to lose our own movie theater."

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN

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Ironic, maybe, but the problem is plainly economic. Barring a massive increase in ticket revenues this quarter, a compromise from the landlord or the sale of the building, the Music Hall — the 1938 single-screen movie palace that local, family-run Laemmle Theaters has been operating as a three-screen art house for four decades — will lose its lease in 2011, due to declining revenues. The theater is simply having too much trouble selling tickets to survive. Although the online commenters may not believe it, the news is no shock to anyone who has been to, or in business with, the theater recently.  

A representative of a documentary that had a one-week run at the Music Hall last year remembers its dreadful opening night: "I saw 1,000 people come out of the Academy that night, 400 people come out of the Writers Guild [Theater], and there were, like, 30 people in the whole complex of the Music Hall."

According to Gary Palmucci, film booker for New York–based distributor Kino Lorber, whose foreign films often play the Music Hall, "The writing's been on the wall for a good part of this year that they're on their way out. 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 L.A."

In a conversation shortly before New Year's, Greg Laemmle, who now runs the family's eight-screen chain, which has operated here for nearly 75 years, admitted that attracting attendance at the Music Hall has become a problem. "It gets to the point where distributors are, like, 'It's really not worth opening there,' " he said.

At an impasse with the Music Hall's landlord for more than a month, Laemmle told the Weekly this week that he and the landlord have started conversations, but it's too soon to report any progress. Asked if the Laemmle Sunset 5 — once the local flagship of indie moviegoing in L.A. but now reeling from competition — could soon fall into the same straits, he said unambiguously, "Yes. That's an ongoing conversation."

The deathwatch on the Music Hall and endangerment of the Sunset 5 are just the latest signs that, as Laemmle puts it, "the state of the art film in L.A. is not great and, certainly relative to New York, it's rather dire."

Studio film is as big a business as ever, but first-run specialty film — including documentaries, foreign-language pictures and anything without the backing of a studio booked on fewer than 500 screens nationwide — struggles to find a foothold in a landscape that, at best, can be described as schizophrenic.

Interestingly, hope for specialty films — the forward-thinking indies and foreign flicks that break ground and pave the way for the future of the medium — is increasingly coming from Los Angeles' repertory houses, traditionally home to classic film series and special events dedicated to looking back at film history. In L.A., many of these repertory houses are thriving: While maintaining their signature missions, they're starting to give first-run theatrical engagements to indie titles that might otherwise fall through the cracks. It's a promising trend, but the jury's still out as to how far it can go. So far, the efforts of the rep houses have acted like a Band-Aid on a wound that needs to be sutured.

In the meantime, the sad fact is that here in the world capital of cinema, we're in danger of losing access to some of the best cinema in the world.

What's the problem? That depends whom you ask.

Dedicated cinephiles, who communicate with their counterparts in other cities via blogs and Twitter, feel that Los Angeles 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 film festival hits that critics love and highbrow film followers say they want to see, no one shows up.

Distributors are frustrated by the variance in grossing potential between high-end multiplexes like the ArcLight — which charge higher prices and expose audiences attracted by loss-leading blockbusters to borderline indie films such as Black Swan — and smaller, art-focused operations, where a film like Black Swan could trickle down to much more obscure fare. Nearly everyone agrees that supporting art-for-art's-sake film can seem like a chore given the city's sprawling geography, the dominance of the film industry in the local cultural conversation, and the clustering of theaters in West Hollywood and West L.A. and dearth of screens on the rapidly gentrifying east side of the basin.

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