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Laemmle Claremont 5 likely to close for good — podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Claremont’s beloved but ultimately under-supported Laemmle theater will likely be shutting its doors for good. How soon is not yet certain.

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The Claremont Laemmle 5 theater is in escrow, and if the sale goes through, the current building will be transformed into a two-story structure housing an organic market with outdoor dining on the first floor, two restaurants on the second, and a rooftop bar.

The proposed buyer is Win Fund Investment LLC, a company based in Rancho Cucamonga.

“Last month, the city received a project submittal for the Laemmle Theater, which is in escrow with a buyer,” Claremont City Councilman Jed Leano told the COURIER. “The proposed project would create a small organic market with prepared food and dining area on the first floor, a new second story within the interior of the existing building with two restaurants and add a roof top patio and bar.”

City staff is in the process of reviewing the Win Fund’s project application, and could be sending it back to the developer for revisions as early as next week, according to Claremont Public Information Officer Bevin Handel.

After the revised plans are submitted, they would require the review and approval of the city’s architectural commission. An amended conditional use permit for changing the existing beer and wine license to full alcohol will be required, but a zone change will not, Handel said.

“We are in discussions to sell the property, but that may come with a lease-back arrangement that would allow for some contingent operation of the theater into, if not well into, next year,” president and C.E.O. Greg Laemmle told the COURIER on Thursday.

Laemmle has previously negotiated sell/lease-back arrangements with its Playhouse 7 property in Pasadena and the NoHo 7 in North Hollywood, both of which helped it to raised much-needed capital. Laemmle remains tenants at those locations.

The same could happen in Claremont, Laemmle said, adding, “Nothing is final at this point.”

It’s no secret Claremont’s Laemmle has been on the market for some time. Laemmle himself posted on the company homepage in July 2020 that the company was looking into a sale/lease-back arrangement.

The 18,743 square-foot property, built in 2007, is currently listed on loop.net for $4.7 million at https://www.loopnet.com/Listing/450-W-2nd-St-Claremont-CA/24136262/.

The five-screen theater opened at 450 W. Second St. in 2007. It closed in March 2020 amid the initial wave of COVID-related shut-downs. The theater reopened this past April after being shuttered for more than a year.

The Los Angeles-based Laemmle chain has been family owned since 1938. It’s weathered multiple recessions during that time, but nothing has hit it quite as hard as the pandemic.

Traditional moviegoing audiences have been reluctant to return to theaters, even as recently as during the pre-Omicron variant Thanksgiving holiday week.

“I think the last time we talked I made reference to the fact that Claremont was lagging a little bit relative to some other venues,” Laemmle said. “It’s picked up a little bit, which is nice to see. But I think the response to arthouse films is still not exactly what we would like to see, and that’s something that made us distinct.”

If the sale of the Claremont location goes through, let’s be honest: it will in most part be due to the lack of support from City of Trees movie fans. Pandemic-related red ink is of course also to blame, but as the COURIER reported in March, the Claremont Laemmle location was struggling with soft attendance before COVID hit the U.S. in March 2020. The chain did receive some government support through stimulus programs, but the influx wasn’t enough to stem the financial bleeding from being closed for 13 months, Laemmle said.

Any business needs make tough choices when aspects of its operation are not turning a profit, even beloved local treasures like the Laemmle Claremont 5.

“Ultimately, yeah, that is the issue,” Laemmle said. “The great thing about being your own landlord is that you know where the rent is coming from; the problem with being your own landlord is when the rent isn’t paid, you’ve still got to make the mortgage. And that really is what this was all about.”

The film exhibition business has changed, and the pandemic has only accelerated the pace.

“Our business has been wracked,” Laemmle said. “We’re open, but we’re still dealing with probably less than 50 percent of the pre-pandemic audience willing to attend. While at least preliminary indications are that this new variant is not necessarily something to be concerned about, people are concerned.”

Laemmle added that the new AMC theater at Montclair Place has also cut into his audience in Claremont. Overall, traditional moviegoing audiences have been reluctant to return to theaters, even as recently as during the pre-Omicron variant Thanksgiving holiday week.

“Is this a business that is potentially getting back to 80 or 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels, or is it going to stay where it is now? And then also of course, in our unique situation, what is the arthouse audience responding to versus the commercial moviegoing audience?”

He talked about trends in the business at large, the massive impact of streaming services, and the question of viability for arthouse theaters in smaller communities such as Claremont. The veteran has a high-altitude view of the various moving pieces. Still though, expansion, not contraction, has always been the plan for the arthouse chain, and the potential of losing the Claremont location is not something that sits well with him.

“This was not the plans,” he said.

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