Sunset 5 Theater Closes 

The end of an era, and what it means for the L.A. art house landscape

Thursday, Dec 22 2011

If you followed the New Queer Cinema, you got to know the place well. If your tastes swung to Swingers, chances are you saw it there. Jackie Brown, Gods and Monsters, Lone Star — all films you might have seen by riding the escalator up to the theater at Sunset and Crescent Heights, maybe after sipping a latte at Buzz or browsing Virgin for CDs. If you were an independent filmmaker, those humble screens at the Laemmle Sunset 5 might have been where you hoped your movie would catch on — whether you released that movie through a traditional distributor, screened it at a local film festival or took advantage of the theater's controversial "four-wall" rental service.

That was then. Despite its multiple functions, the 19-year-old Sunset 5 closed last month.

Greg Laemmle, president of the family-owned company that has run local movie houses since 1938, says it wasn't the recession that did in the Sunset 5 — many other Laemmle cinemas are thriving. "Generally speaking, movies are countercyclical: Box office holds up pretty well during a recession," he says. No, the beginning of the end came in 2002, when Pacific opened a multiplex at the Grove, and the ArcLight Hollywood moved in at Sunset and Ivar. These theaters showed both indie and Hollywood movies, with top-of-the-line seating and sound. Because the Laemmles were renting space at the Sunset 5, they hesitated to make improvements that would allow them to compete with the comparatively luxurious new theaters. With the lease up for an increase next year, the family had to admit it was over.

click to enlarge Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin, which played at the Sunset 5.
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin, which played at the Sunset 5.

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Now, even though the number of total screens in town will increase — the shuttered theater will be taken over by Sundance Cinemas, and the family's new seven-screen multiplex in North Hollywood opened Dec. 21 — cineastes worry that there could be less space for the kinds of movies the Sunset specialized in.

"It saddens me," says longtime indie publicist Fredell Pogodin, who expects some valuable smaller films will remain homeless during the changeover. "Edgier American films, foreign-language films, gay films, documentaries — all of them could get lost."

"I'm dumbstruck," says filmmaker Gregg Araki, whose groundbreaking LGBT-themed films (Nowhere, Kaboom) had important runs at the theater. "It's totally one of those end-of-an-era things. It's like when Tower Records closed: 'Things are changing that fast?' "

The Sunset 5 opened its doors at 8000 Sunset on Aug. 18, 1992, in a location once occupied by the fabled Schwab's drugstore. A Brief History of Time and Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Springtime played on opening night. Before long, Virgin Megastore and Wolfgang Puck Café opened in the same complex. The parking lot began to seem permanently jammed.

"Greg and Bob [Laemmle] really listened to and understood West Hollywood," says Marcus Hu, co-founder of Strand Releasing, whose gay-themed films such as Wild Reeds and Edge of Seventeen thrived there. "From the start, the way the Laemmles booked the Sunset 5 was crucial for us."

The place kept its luster through several chapters of film history, surviving the fleeting booms of New Queer and '90s indie and a post-9/11 deflation. "It was as close to curating as exhibition can get," says Robert Koehler, film critic, festival programmer and L.A. native.

For years, Araki took meetings at the Buzz Coffee (since replaced by a Starbucks) downstairs from the theater. And as late as 2003, when Araki was working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Mysterious Skin, the young actor talked about his dream of appearing in a movie that would end up at the Sunset 5.

But in recent years, the Virgin and Wolfgang Puck locations closed. And with new cinemas nearby, the Sunset 5 had trouble drawing the attention of distributors. "If you don't get the films," Laemmle says, "people stop coming. It can be an accelerating process."

Araki says the theater was sometimes the only place an eccentric or cutting-edge film would show. Now, he worries, "Where is it gonna play? Stuff that's out of the mainstream, that has to struggle to find a screen?"

A funny thing happens when you ask indie scenesters about the closing of the Sunset 5. Normally loquacious sources get laconic, or ask to go off the record. Distributors don't return your calls. Part of the cone of silence comes from the regard L.A.'s film community holds for the Laemmles, who have maintained a reputation as solid and often artistically serious exhibitors.

"I always liken the Laemmles to the O'Malleys owning the Dodgers and the Disneys owning Disneyland," Koehler says: "These family-owned businesses that made the city what it was culturally." Koehler, who was exposed to his first foreign film, directed by Roberto Rossellini, after taking a bus with his French class from the wilds of the West Valley to a Laemmle cinema, credits the family with developing a local audience for foreign films and art cinema.

The Laemmle chain also exerts near-monopoly power — for now — over anyone hoping to exhibit art films. The only comparable art-house exhibitor in the Southland is the Landmark chain, whose sole multiplex, at the Westside Pavilion, leans to the Hollywood side of the indie/Hollywood split.

In addition to a higher pitch of competition, recent years have seen a shift in film culture, Greg Laemmle says. "There's been a decline in films for the LGBT community. These smaller films had a significant impact on our box office."

Lately, the once-proud cinema was reduced to renting out screens. While the so-bad-it's-good sensation The Room came in as a rental, most movies that took advantage of the Laemmles' four-wall deals made Tommy Wiseau's trashterpiece look like Citizen Kane. Koehler, who champions overlooked films and resents the valuable screens being pimped out, characterizes these four-wall films as "pieces of lint."

Sundance Cinemas has not yet announced when it will reopen the Sunset 5 space (and its reps dodged the Weekly's request for comment). The company, an offshoot of Robert Redford's signature film festival, operates theaters in Houston, San Francisco and Madison, Wis. At press time, the San Francisco Sundance was showing The Descendants — the kind of film you might see at the Sunset 5 — as well as New Year's Eve, which you probably wouldn't.

"At least initially, Sundance Cinemas is going to try to make a splash," Koehler expects. "They're very media-savvy. My guess is they're sinking a considerable amount of money into it."

He expects more films like the airy, romantic drama Like Crazy (which won the top prize at Sundance this year) and fewer comparatively esoteric or demanding titles, like Romanian Cannes winner Police, Adjective. He also fears that films from outside the United States and Europe, typically overlooked at the Sundance festival, will be rare at the cinemas as well.

The new North Hollywood theater will offer a significant advantage for the Laemmles: It will be built and operated by the family rather than rented from a landlord, which will give them more impetus to invest in the facility. It's also near a Metro stop and the burgeoning NoHo Arts district. Greg Laemmle cautions that the new cinema will not replace the Sunset 5 but will be "a blend of Hollywood and indie. At the end of the day, the patrons tell you what you program. If Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does more business, we'll book that, too."

Some think these changes could actually be for the better, with a net gain in screens and a proprietor willing to put more resources into the Crescent Heights space. Others are more skeptical.

"The bottom line," says Koehler, "is will this open up screens for films that would otherwise not show in Los Angeles? That's the real test. If it means just showing the same films already here, it's a lot less meaningful."

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