Los Angeles Arthouses Face Uphill Battle After Latest High-Profile Closing

·5 min read

The looming closure of Landmark Theatres’ Pico location is a significant loss for L.A.’s independent movie scene, which was already sorely missing the shuttered ArcLight Hollywood. Getting art-house audiences to return to cinemas has been challenging as COVID-19 variants have swept the country, and now the question is whether the city that makes movies has enough theaters to show all kinds of titles — not just blockbusters.

For moviegoers on the west side of Los Angeles, there was something special about the Landmark Pico, whose 12 screens programmed a wide variety of mostly independent and foreign films, along with industry screenings and panels.

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“Around the country, including in Los Angeles, there are just fewer theaters and fewer screens than there were before the pandemic,” says Jasper Basch, IFC Films and IFC Midnight head of theatrical distribution. “The Landmark Pico’s closure is going to contribute to this problem.”

And it could hit Hollywood where it really hurts: Oscar consideration. “It’s going to be a problem for Academy runs,” predicts Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard.

So without Landmark’s popular Westside location, which is set to close at the end of May, where’s the ideal place to open a buzzy independent title?

“We’re very well positioned to pick up the slack,” says Laemmle Theatres President Greg Laemmle, who operates the bulk of the remaining art-houses in the city, including the Monica Film Center and the Royal on the Westside. He points out that his theaters regularly program the smaller titles that “don’t always play in Century City.”

“We believe in the long-term future of art-house exhibition,” says Laemmle. But his company has its own share of challenges: The Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, for example, is operating under a leaseback that extends only to June.

“We’re looking at other options in Pasadena. It’s not going to happen right away,” says Laemmle. “It’s a question of real estate. Can exhibition compete in terms of renewing leases?” he asks rhetorically. That was the issue with the Landmark Pico, which is located next to the former Westside Pavilion mall that is now offices for Google.

Convincing art-house moviegoers, particularly in the older demographics, to return to theaters post-pandemic when they have a wealth of streaming options will be crucial to how many theaters can survive.

Bernard says getting film aficionados back into the moviegoing habit takes creative, modern thinking. “Where’s the innovation?” he asks. “Theaters like New York’s Angelika are rising to the challenge with an aggressive internet program.”

He also points to promotions to help bring back moviegoers like SPC’s recent “Bring a Friend Back to the Movies,” which offered a free ticket to “The Duke” to anyone who bought a ticket at theaters including the Angelika and Laemmle.

“We need some change,” Bernard says about how to rethink indie film marketing. “Once people go back to the movies, they’re in. It’s safer to go to the movies than to a bar or restaurant — you’ve got to put that throught in their mind.”

Meanwhile, the bigger films from specialty distributors, such as A24’s hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” are playing at major multiplexes like AMC’s locations at The Grove and in Century City.

Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West L.A. will take over some bookings when the Landmark Pico shutters. - Credit: Courtesy Laemmle Theatres
Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West L.A. will take over some bookings when the Landmark Pico shutters. - Credit: Courtesy Laemmle Theatres

Courtesy Laemmle Theatres

“AMC took an opportunity with The Grove to start to absorb art films and that audience after ArcLight Hollywood closed,” says Basch. As far as where to kick off a platform release for a buzzy indie, he also points to Laemmle’s Royal as “a fantastic venue.”

However, “AMC will make room for fewer art-house films as the summer goes on,” Bernard points out. “It’s been a lucky time for independents being able to play them, but now blockbusters will be on every screen”

New players are looking at opportunities for opening or reopening art-house locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, Bernard says, including discussions about reopening the ArcLight. A source close to the ArcLight says there is “no update to share.”

“ArcLight had an extraordinary location, and they developed a reputation of opening the best art house films in the U.S., but that can happen elsewhere,” says Basch.

While it’s long been prestigious to open films on the city’s monied, industry-intensive Westside, the cultural conversation has also moved further east. Younger moviegoers  appreciate the food and drink options at downtown L.A.’s Alamo Drafthouse, which books some independent titles amid major studio releases.

Laemmle also points out, “We’re seeing more business at our Glendale location,” which is convenient to Silver Lake and Highland Park.

Despite glimmers of hope, there’s no question that Los Angeles is emerging from the pandemic with far fewer places to see a variety of films. But those in the business are trying to stay positive.

“A multiplex with a high screen count has become the de facto art house for many areas in the country. The transition period will present a challenge to all distributors, but I’m optimistic that once we get over that hump, the loss will be minimal,” Basch believes.

Laemmle remains hopeful about the local exhibition business. “Distributors can count on getting their film played in Los Angeles,” he says.

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