Laemmle will stay in Claremont: beloved arthouse theater gets second life

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

After a spate of recent cultural losses, including the Candlelight Pavilion, Rhino Records, and apparently, The Press, Claremont can finally put one in the win column: the Laemmle Claremont 5 theater will remain open … for now.

“Escrow has been cancelled,” Laemmle Theaters President and CEO Greg Laemmle told the Courier on Monday.

Laemmle said the theater will be open at least through 2023. What will happen after that appears to be up to the community.

“We are not putting the property back on the market at this time,” Laemmle said. “But there are still challenges given the current level of revenue. I’m hopeful that, to the extent that some people have not come back out of uncertainty about what’s going on with the theater — ‘Is it open? Is it not open?’ — Well, it’s open!”

The theater’s potential buyer, Win Fund Investment LLC, out of Rancho Cucamonga, was unable to complete the purchase during the extended escrow period of more than a year, Laemmle said.

Revenue will eventually need to double at the Claremont location for it to be profitable, Laemmle said. He’s hopeful a promising lineup of upcoming commercial and art films this year and next will compel more folks to return to the Laemmle Claremont 5 and push it into the black.

“We’re prepared to give everybody a chance,” Laemmle said. “This is another opportunity for people to show they care about having this facility in the city.”

The Courier reported in December 2021 the long planned for sale of the property appeared to be heading toward completion. At a Q and A after the November 19 Claremont screening of “Only in Theaters,” the new documentary about the long history and recent travails of Laemmle Theatres, Greg Laemmle told the community there was still a chance, albeit slim, that an 11th hour show of support from the community might help save the theater. That groundswell didn’t quite materialize, but the theater chain took notice of the passion from some local independent cinema lovers.

“There’s no question that the great crowd that came to see the film in Claremont at that screening was heartening,” Laemmle said. “And we know from the people that are coming” to see the film “that they are very concerned about the situation. We just need more of them.

“I think we noticed the hue and the cry. And we do understand that this is potentially a loss for the community. At the same time there’s the reality that people can say they want an arthouse, but if they’re not coming out to support it, then they don’t want an arthouse.”

The Claremont location is one of seven Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles County. It is among the lowest performing of the bunch, Laemmle said. But it’s not just the Claremont Laemmle location that is underperforming; Covid decimated U.S. theater attendance in 2020, and the industry has been climbing out of that hole ever since.

“We know that, and we know that this theater is part of that ecosystem,” Laemmle said. “So, to expect something [immediately] of this specific location when the general industry is still facing challenges is not fair.”

In some ways the Laemmle Claremont 5, with its fate hanging precariously on hoped-for support from a broader arthouse clientele, mirrors the challenges facing the film exhibition industry as a whole. Likewise, “Only in Theaters” which chronicles both the Laemmle family’s place in Hollywood history — “There has been a Laemmle in the movie business since there’s been a movie business,” reads the film’s promo material, and indeed, Greg Laemmle’s grandfather’s cousin, Carl Laemmle, co-founded Universal Pictures in 1912 — and the seismic changes to the exhibition business over a century-plus.

The film is a cry for recognizing what we have, and I don’t mean specifically Laemmle Theaters, but what our culture has with this form, and how important it is, and trying to get people to wake up and recognize it,” Laemmle said. “This happens because we support it, and if we don’t support it it’s going to go away. And we’ll all have to live with the repercussions of that.”

The Laemmle Corp. put the Laemmle Claremont 5 on the market amid recent historic lows in box office revenue. Though it’s clear its numbers are still not where they need to be for long-term sustainability, the industry as a whole has bounced back somewhat, which helped make the decision to take it off the market much easier.

“We love doing this and we want to keep doing it, but we need the community’s support,” Laemmle said. “I don’t necessarily expect any major changes immediately, but during the course of the year we’ll start trying to figure some stuff out. We don’t need to go from where we are not to where we need to be overnight, we just need to start making some incremental progress.”

Prior to the pandemic, Laemmle sold two underperforming properties, the Music Hall and the Fine Arts, both in Beverly Hills. The company’s only directly Covid-related closure thus far came last June when it sold the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, which recently reopened as a Landmark Theater.

With the figurative stay of execution, Laemmle said the company will now look at making improvements in “creature comforts,” event programming, and advertising at the Claremont location.

Though no quantifiable data exists, Laemmle suspects the recent opening of the AMC Dine-In Montclair Place 12, with its luxury seating and in-theater wait service, as well as the Regal Edwards La Verne’s move to luxury seating, have both cut into ticket sales at the Claremont location. Still, Laemmle has no interest in following suit.

“For better or for worse we offer moviegoing as it used to be, which is inexpensive, comfortable but not luxurious, something for people that regularly want to see movies and a wide variety of movies,” Laemmle said. “I think that’s why the community wanted us there, and we’re still committed to upholding our end of that bargain.”

Laemmle added he’s been asked by several local fans of independent cinema to bring numerous art films to the Claremont theater, but the response from the general public has not matched the aficionados’ enthusiasm.

“It’s not enough to say that we want these films in our community, it’s we have to actually buy tickets,” Laemmle said.

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