Use it or lose it: a Laemmle love letter-podcast
Some decried the decision by the 83-year-old family owned chain to cut its financial losses in Claremont. Others asked what could be done to save it. A few removed the emotion — and make no mistake, folks are upset — and looked at it strictly from a business standpoint, which is of course precisely why we are almost certainly losing our jewel box of a movie theater.
Two events have conspired against the Laemmle Claremont 5: the pandemic and lack of support from customers. It’s really that simple.
I count myself among those responsible. I adored the Laemmle from the start, in 2007, when it opened its doors as the anchor tenant in the spiffy new Village West development. But if I’m being honest, and I am, there were stretches of two or three months in there when I didn’t buy a single reasonably-priced ticket or expensive batch of snacks and drinks at 450 west Second Street.
Up until the pandemic changed how we do everything, I believed, just like some on social media commented since my story about the impending sale of the property broke last week, that Claremont deserved a Laemmle theater.
We were all wrong.
For some of us, it may provide solace to hear company president and CEO Greg Laemmle explain the probable fate of Claremont’s Laemmle 5 is only a symptom of a greater problem across the film exhibition industry.
“Unfortunately we’re going to hit the two-year mark of the shutdown of movie theaters in the United States, and we’re still dealing with lingering concerns over what does the pandemic mean to people’s individual health,” Laemmle said. “And that’s ultimately the decision that people make about whether they’re going to a movie or not.”
Thus far, the answer is no.
Even with some major studios going back to “in-theaters only” release rollouts for their new big-budget, mainstream titles over the recent Thanksgiving holiday — long a chief cash-sweep/recoup period for the industry — patrons were still reluctant to return; only about 3.7 million of them lined up for Disney’s critically acclaimed Encanto, snatching up just 35% of available seats.
“The bigger, long-term question of, for people who have not gone to a movie in two years, are they ever coming back?” Laemmle said. “I believe that they will, but we’re still going to have to get to a point where they’re not thinking of it as a life or death choice. And then we’re going to have to re-acquaint them to why this is a better way to see movies.”
Laemmle is well aware that the pandemic has only helped to deepen many movie fans’ reliance on streaming services. During the pandemic, several major studios have even done the previously unthinkable and released some big-budget, mainstream films on streaming platforms first, or concurrent with in-theater exhibition, a move unimaginable at any time prior to the COVID curse.
Greg Laemmle’s grandfather’s first cousin was Carl Laemmle, a German-born immigrant who co-founded and then owned Universal Studios from 1912 to 1934, when he lost control of the business. His grandfather Max Laemmle and great-uncle Kurt Laemmle started Laemmle Theaters, with their first location in Highland Park, in 1938.
The chain now has nine locations in L.A. County, some of which have bounced back after nearly two years in financial free fall. Asked if the pandemic-related losses could spell the end of the company’s presence in Los Angeles arthouse cinema, he was quick to quell speculation.
“No. We’ve had to reposition in part to reduce debt, and just to recapitalize. But we will be maintaining certain locations hopefully well beyond the end of 2022. And again, we will try to reassess what the future of exhibition looks like when we’ve sort of gotten to some kind of stasis.”
With a heavy heart, I say, despite the imminent demise of our arthouse gem, we raise a glass to Laemmle for the 14 years it spent in the City of Trees. Here’s to hoping the beloved arthouse chain’s future is bright, even if it does not include our fair city.
Even with trends leaning increasingly toward streaming platforms and in-home viewing on ginormous TVs, I believe it’s impossible for that convenience to eclipse the huge screen, big sound, warm popcorn event of going out to the movies.
Big-budget, computer-rendered, mainstream comic book superhero films, animated blockbuster franchises and multi-sequel/prequel institutions about epic space battles will surely always draw an in-theater audience large enough to warrant their continued existence. It seems like more and more mainstream Hollywood product falls into this recycling bin of ideas, so it’s clear the high-level prognosticators employed there are certainly banking on it.
But that’s not what the Laemmle chain does. It’s here for the rest of us, we who long to see films about people talking to one another — sometimes in a language other than English — about love and sex and death, sans exploding helicopters and characters who fly and shoot nuclear weapons and spider webs out of their super suits; we of the documentaries about truffles and influential but unsung cult artists, of quirky independent comedies starring someone other than Paul Rudd. Nothing against Paul Rudd. He’s sexy as hell, of course, as has been established. But you get what I’m saying: us film nuts who also appreciate lesser-known, but still incredibly handsome, infuriatingly hilarious and likeable actors. We can live without the explosions. We’re good, Marvel.