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."
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.
Richard Lorber, whose Lorber Films merged with Kino International a year ago, and other indie-film veterans are quick to point out that Los Angeles has never been as friendly a market for their movies as New York. But the landscape has changed significantly over the past decade.
Laemmle tells the Weekly that business at the Music Hall and Sunset 5 has suffered from relatively new, upscale competitors such as the ArcLight Hollywood, Pacific's The Grove 14 and the Westside Pavilion's Landmark (part of Landmark's nationwide chain of art houses, which includes the single-screen Nuart and Westwood's Regal).
As the newer theaters book the first runs of top-flight Indiewood films, the Laemmle chain has turned to the controversial practice of four-walling to help subsidize the screens they devote to lower-grossing art pictures. A four-wall is essentially a pay-for-play plan through which representatives for a film give the theater cash up front for the use of the hall for a week, and then the filmmakers keep the total box office. Four-walling happens at theaters all over town, but it may be most conspicuous at the Music Hall and Sunset 5, where highly praised art films play next to movies from no-name filmmakers with no reputation to preceed them.
"These movies that really don't deserve screen time are taking up valuable screens in independent theaters," says Marcus Hu, president of L.A.-based specialty distributor Strand Releasing.
"It's a cash cow for them," Kino's Palmucci says. "So they have tended to be much more, shall we say, circumspect about playing some of these smaller foreign films that we might have otherwise had an easier time [opening in L.A.]."
"There's a lot of dross that's mixed in with some of the quality films," Laemmle admits. "There are a lot of filmmakers that want their films to play in Los Angeles, and we do provide them that opportunity. All I can say is that not every film that we play is going to be a quality film."
It's easy to see why this compromise in quality has made financial sense for the Laemmle chain. But to cinephiles, it's not always clear why unworthy films fill screens in L.A. when many better movies that get a minimum of a one-week run in New York will show for just one night in Los Angeles, if they screen here at all. Of course, L.A. doesn't have year-round, nonprofit venues quite like New York's Anthology Film Archives and Filmforum. Our closest analogues, like the American Cinematheque and Cinefamily, are only just starting to dip their toes into first-run exhibition.
Still, even when screens are easy to come by, distributors of highly acclaimed, international prize-winning, critically adored films tell the Weekly that opening their movies in L.A. doesn't always make financial sense.
"New York, for all of our successful titles, does double the business, if not maybe three times the business, compared to L.A.," says Tom Quinn, senior vice president of Magnolia Pictures, a distributor of foreign, documentary and independent American films, which like the Landmark chain is owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner. Quinn cites the Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc. and the Tilda Swinton–starring Italian movie I Am Love as examples.
David Fenkel, who co-founded indie distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, explains: "For art house films, it costs much more money to reach the same amount of audience these days in L.A. as it does in New York. The typical platform release was New York and L.A. at the same date, but [now] we actually don't always do that. There is a lot of potential to gross in L.A., but it's harder to get a high per-screen average."
Per-screen average is generally the rubric by which success is measured for limited releases, and often the determining factor for their expansion into additional neighborhoods and cities. That's one reason distributors prefer to book such films at the larger chains: A film like Black Swan, intended for a middlebrow-verging-on-highbrow audience, does very well at theaters such as the ArcLight and the Landmark, which offer amenities like reserved seating and premium concessions, at premium prices. Moviegoers happily accept inflated charges in exchange for luxe atmosphere, comfort and convenience. Both the ArcLight and the Landmark cater to a specific kind of L.A. behavior: Attached to shopping centers with easy, affordable parking, they allow a moviegoer to get several things done at once — shopping, a meal, a post-movie drink — without having to worry about moving their car. That's a nonapplicable concept at the Music Hall, located on a relatively sleepy stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, and is not a particularly attractive prospect at the Sunset 5, the crown jewel of a half-empty shopping complex now that Virgin Megastore has vacated its anchor space.
There are exceptions: Quinn notes that Let the Right One In, Magnolia's hit Swedish film about a preteen vampire that was remade as Let Me In, "did very, very well" at the Sunset 5. But generally, he says, the ArcLight and Landmark "are the highest-grossing theaters in L.A. for the films that we release."
In film industry–obsessed Los Angeles, business analysis and reporting on studio product tend to dominate the conversation so much that media coverage of more artistically ambitious cinema is severely marginalized. For that reason, dropping a movie in a reliably high-grossing location matters a great deal. Robust opening-weekend box office begets continued success, and a weak first weekend usually is impossible to recover from.
While distributors may be happy with the numbers at L.A.'s newish multiplexes in the short term, these theaters generally aren't in the business of curating with the preservation of film culture in mind. In addition to booking movies by well-known but art-minded auteurs such as Darren Aronofsky and Mike Leigh, they tend to pad their schedules with straight-up studio films as loss leaders — think Tron: Legacy at the Landmark. That's opposed to a different kind of art house model, such as the one in place at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema in New York, where the Aronofsky film would be the loss leader, and an audience attracted to that sort of borderline art film could potentially trickle down to more adventurous content, such as a foreign film or documentary.
Ted Mundorff, CEO of the Landmark chain, dismisses complaints about the financial challenges of the L.A. market. "Whoever believes that doesn't know anything about Los Angeles," he says, citing Blue Valentine as an example of a film that grossed more in its opening weekend in Los Angeles than it did during the same period in New York. "[Distributors] make more money in Los Angeles than they do in New York, I guarantee you that."
Statistics obtained by the Weekly suggest it's not uncommon for a film that does well in New York to gross considerably less in Los Angeles. For example, the French romance Mademoiselle Chambon, which was considered a hit here, made about two-thirds as much in its L.A. engagements as it did in New York. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture attracted Hollywood's attention — the indie film earned its writer-director-star an HBO series and a deal with Scott Rudin — but couldn't attract local moviegoers. Its L.A. box office take was a pitiful fifth of what the film made in New York.
Tiny Furniture played for two months in New York and lasted just two weeks in Los Angeles, which is emblematic of the accelerated process of natural selection that governs indie-film releasing. "I like to say it's a somewhat democratic world," Mundorff says. "A small indie film, if people like the film, then more people are going to go, and the film stays around longer and moves from city to city. And if people don't like the film, they vote it off the island."
This capitalistic notion of "democracy" — the likening of an art film to a reality show contestant who can lose the popularity contest and fall out of the game before L.A. audiences get a chance to vote — is one thing coming from a corporate CEO, but even art-first indie distributors admit they evaluate New York box office before making a firm commitment to L.A.
"Sometimes we say, 'Let's open in just New York, and if the number really pops there, then let's open in Los Angeles and see if it goes further,' " says Hu, whose Strand Releasing will put out last year's Cannes Film Festival winner, Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this spring. "But when it doesn't work in New York, you just know it's a no-win situation. The distributor and the exhibitor [will] agree: 'You know what, let's not open L.A. It's just gonna be a waste.' "
Where Mundorff's pragmatism can read as dismissive of the kinds of films a distributor such as Strand releases, Hu's realism is tinged with heartbreak. "As a cinephile myself, I do feel the short shrift," he says. But "You can only lose so much money, and at a certain point you have to say, 'Hey, as much as I love it, the Los Angeles market just is not supporting these movies.' "
That might seem ironic — are we not a city overflowing with people passionate enough about cinema that they've made it their profession? In fact, many of my sources suggested the industry's dominance here actually stymies attempts to develop a rich and varied film culture. As Magnolia's Quinn puts it, "L.A. is a company town. And in a company town, company films consume consumers' attention."
In a place where many people who care about movies have a stake in the sustenance of the commercial film industry, a good film is great, but a movie with "grossing potential" is much better. The bigger the business a movie does, the more integral it becomes to the collective local conversation, and thus it attains a priority over a foreign film or documentary that can be watched later on Netflix — or, in many cases, seen for free at a guild screening or at home on a "for your consideration" DVD.
"Aren't so many people in Los Angeles so used to seeing things for free?" asks Hu, laughing at the absurdity. "They need to put their money where their mouth is, and I just haven't been seeing that.
"People always say these things go in cycles," Hu adds. "But if these theaters close, I don't imagine any theaters reopening anytime soon. Once they're shut, they're shut. And there's no model for it to ever come back. I just could never see it making any financial sense for anyone."
Never say never: While traditional art houses stumble, adventurous filmgoers are turning their attention to L.A.'s revival theaters, including the American Cinematheque's Aero and Egyptian, Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre and the New Beverly Cinema.
It's pushing 10 p.m. on a Friday night in January, and the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax is full to bursting, a sellout crowd filling every built-in seat and spilling over into folding chairs. Before the movie runs, Hadrian Belove, executive director of Cinefamily, the consortium that's been programming the theater since 2007, gives the audience some context for what they're about to see.
"We don't show a lot of first-run films," Belove tells the crowd, which looks as though it could have been bused in en masse from a Silver Lake bar. "But believe it or not, a lot of great films don't get shown in L.A. A lot of films that win awards and make critics' lists play for maybe a week in New York, and just have one screening here. We felt like it was part of our mission statement to pick a couple of these films a year and give them the run they deserve."
This is the opening night of Dogtooth, Cinefamily's first pick for a one-week run of a first-run movie. Perhaps the most conspicuous 2010 indie release to skip L.A., the Greek Dogtooth — a frankly violent, often hilarious parable about the roles of language and popular culture in social control — won a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. The film opened in June 2010 in New York, where its Friday-night screening was introduced by famous fan David Byrne. The movie, a hot topic among the online cinephile cognoscenti, garnered strong reviews (it currently holds a 91 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, four percentage points "fresher" than Inception). But box office in New York was not exactly boffo, and distributor Kino Lorber's attempts to find an L.A. screen met with resistance. Both Landmark and Laemmle say they questioned the film's commercial potential and declined to book it. Richard Lorber says the perception was that Dogtooth "just may be too far out for the L.A. audiences."
But 2010's local box office numbers suggest that "far-out" films seem to be doing extremely well. In fact, the bulk of art house business seems to be happening at two extremes: Older-skewing indies like City Island and Mademoiselle Chambon do well with the traditional, West L.A.–based audience, while unrated, extreme cult titles are drawing younger crowds from the city's east side.
"Movies like Human Centipede, Enter the Void or Trash Humpers — those are three of the five marquee indie films that are gonna happen all year, the biggest nonstudio events," Belove tells the Weekly. "They're big enough that someone will get in the car and drive to the Westside. Dogtooth is the kind of great movie that should be a regular staple of an urban center's viewing experience [but] maybe hasn't achieved the same kind of marquee status."
Cinefamily has steadily built a loyal audience with its shabbily inviting hideout vibe; eccentric, largely repertory programming; and vital presence online. Attendance grew 37 percent in 2010 — remarkable considering that Cinefamily's Silent Movie Theatre home is located in more or less the same general area as both the saved-by–Quentin Tarantino New Beverly Cinema and the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre. (Egyptian publicist Margot Gerber says the theater has seen nightly average ticket sales skyrocket from 150 in September 2009 to 250 in January 2011, in part thanks to an increased presence on Facebook.)
In an extraordinarily tough climate, all three theaters are thriving by peddling unique brands of programming to an audience they reach largely on the Internet. And that success is allowing these theaters to step in and pick up some of the slack left by the city's struggling first-run theaters.
Both the Cinematheque and the New Beverly saw some success in 2010 programming contemporary cinema. The Egyptian hosted well-attended one-week runs of documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector and Olivier Assayas' Golden Globe–winning sensation Carlos, while the New Bev gave birth to the growing cult surrounding Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Scott Pilgrim is an interesting case study. Bankrolled by Universal, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim is a studio film with an experimental sensibility. It was considered a huge flop when it opened in August to just $10 million. Remember that thing about indie films getting voted off the island? It works for studio movies, too: After two disappointing weekends, Scott Pilgrim started to disappear from screens.
Wright, who had previously guest-curated at the New Beverly, says the theater booked a Scott Pilgrim midnight screening as soon as the movie was kicked off the first-run screens. Wright was able to corral 13 members of the film's cast and crew to make an appearance at that first midnight screening, and word soon spread online about a legendary 2:30 a.m. post-show Q&A. Over the next few months, the theater continued scheduling Scott Pilgrim screenings, and Wright and his cast continued to show up to present the movie to packed crowds. When a two-night stand for a triple feature of Wright's movies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim) was announced in January, Wright says both dates sold out in four minutes. "It's a hit there, at least!"
Scott Pilgrim's lightning-fast path from box office bomb to local cult revival speaks to the fact that one reliable way to motivate Los Angeles audiences is by turning a movie into an event. That's something at which Cinefamily, with its all-night marathons and back-patio post-movie parties, has excelled. As Belove contemplates expanding the brand, he says he thinks they could do even better if they moved out of that tight geographic cluster and closer to the conclaves teeming with members of the culturally curious breed known as the hipster. "L.A. has shifted east," Belove says.
For the younger-skewing genre films he acquires for Magnolia's Magnet label, Quinn agrees. "Los Feliz [is] where you need to be. It's hard to book, because there's a limited number of theaters there. But that's where the audience is."
Belove says it's a "well-known secret" that a number of parties are trying to figure out how to serve that audience in their backyard. "That neighborhood should be like the Village in Manhattan. The first person to open an art house triplex near Los Feliz is going to do just fine."
Expansion funds are an issue for the nonprofit Cinefamily, and Belove is concerned that although their audience may be east, "The wealth of Los Angeles is in West Hollywood and West L.A. Generally, when somebody donates, they want to be able to drive by the theater and see the fruits of their generosity."
Still, he says, "Someone's gonna do it, and it would be a shame if it wasn't with us."
That someone could be Tim League, CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse, a Texas-based chain of theaters that, with their fun-film bent and kitchens serving booze and food during all screenings, offer a party atmosphere that appeals to fanboy nerds and highbrow cinema connoisseurs alike. Nationally regarded as a force for good in the fight to keep film culture thriving, League confirms rumors that he's hunting for an L.A. location for an Alamo Drafthouse expansion. "We'd like to be out there," he says. "We're looking."
But some aren't so sure that what this landscape needs is more screens.
Lorber speculates that the problem may be less geographic than generational: "The question is whether the young hipsters, so to speak, are actually interested in seeing films like Dogtooth. We're all hopeful, new venues are great, [but] the question is just whether 20-somethings who grew up with the Internet really want to go to the movies. It's going to be interesting if the filmgoing culture is sustainable in these new communities."
Speaking before Dogtooth's opening-night sellout, Belove had faith. "Hipsters are poor, and hipsters know how to download, so maybe that makes them harder to get. But on the other hand, these are the most curious, active people. If something is new and interesting, they'll show up. I've seen it."
In its full one-week run at Cinefamily, Dogtooth grossed $16,030 — and that was from just one or two shows a day, compared to the three to five shows it played in New York, where its opening weekend grossed less than $7,000. That enormous success probably had something to do with timing — the second week of January was the perfect time to capitalize on Dogtooth's placement on many critics' year-end best-of lists, including my own — but it's also unquestionable evidence that it is possible to bring an obscure art film with cult cachet to L.A. and attract a young audience whose evangelism to friends via social networks like Twitter can then keep a house nearly full all week long. As a result of Dogtooth's success at Cinefamily, Laemmle scheduled a series of weekend morning shows at its theaters in Pasadena and Santa Monica. Two weeks later, the film became a surprise nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Suddenly a film that for so long was a victim of the unique challenges to the L.A. market is now the embodiment of how to face those challenges smartly — and win. As Kino's Palmucci wrote in an e-mail once the final totals for the week were in, "We may have to rethink this whole L.A. exhibition scene."
This successful first-run experiment could point to a future path for Cinefamily. "Because L.A.'s so spread out, and a lot of the distributors are New York–based, it's harder for them to work L.A.'s weird market," Belove says. "So maybe a function that we're going to have is to help them spread the word to the people who would be interested."
Of all the word-spreading via Twitter occasioned by the Cinefamily run, one opening-night micromissive from @spinenumber408 best summed up the sense of celebratory relief that a film like Dogtooth could fill an L.A. house: "The turnout tonight for DOGTOOTH at @cinefamily is proof that we, in L.A., sometimes can have nice things."
The key to having "nice things" may be to think of access to films like Dogtooth not as an inalienable right but as a privilege. The less we take advantage of that privilege, the greater the chance that it could disappear.
"The reality is that [when] we do play these films and they don't do well, that sends a message, to us, to distributors," Laemmle says. "It will have serious repercussions in the sense that it isn't going to improve the situation for the films that we didn't get to, and it's going to potentially lead to a more serious situation."
Your first step to improving that situation? Simply showing up.