Only In Theaters

The Laemmle Theater chain is a local Los Angeles area institution going back to the ’30s, when it was founded by one of Carl Laemmle’s cousins. (Carl Laemmle founded Universal.) The Laemmle theaters were a major player in getting movies seen in the place where they most needed to be seen, and this is a documentary about their historical involvement in making foreign luminaries like Ingmar Bergman luminous. At least to the point where Americans could see his light, anyway.

And if that’s not your cup of meat, in 2003, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room got its world premiere in two (no longer extant) Laemmle theaters, the Fairfax and the Fallbrook (the latter I came to regard as “mine” for the 15-odd years of its existence, and whose employees sometimes commented that the Boy and I were there more often than they were).

Greg Laemmle pretends to watch a movie.

I wanted this documentary to be primarily about that. The Laemmle was a fixture in my childhood, not all that much less than Greg Laemmle’s it sometimes seems, and its history is the history of movies—movie exhibition which, after all, is how movies were mostly seen until relatively recently. Under Greg’s control, the chain expanded to more screens than ever—and contracted a little as well recently.

It’s not actually that difficult a formula: They try to keep the prices low, both on tickets and concessions, the concession quality high, and their employee quality high, too. Impossible for one of the big chains, I guess, but pretty consistent for Laemmle. They show foreign films, sure, and weird one-offs, and even mainstream movies that they think will appeal to their audiences.

I mean, check it: I’ve got a dozen AMCs within a short drive from here and they’re all showing the same freakin’ movie. The Laemmle on the West Side shows different movies from the Laemmle in Encino which shows different movies from Newhall (which is more mainstream) and so on. Same with all the Regency theaters and the Regal theaters as well. (In fairness to the local Regal, it does show Indian movies, and the AMC shows Chinese movies in Chinese neighborhoods. But around here, it’s all the same superhero crap.)

In 2019 (or late 2018), they started looking for a buyer. And the documentary, which was in process, talked about how receipts were down and how it wasn’t making sense to keep going as a business, just in terms of the profit being delivered to the family.

Is this irony?

I’d never looked into it, but receipts being down didn’t surprise me at all. After about 20 years of having my moviegoing (100+ movies a year, recall) dominated by Laemmle, I’d struggled to find anything worth seeing in recent years. And I knew that was going to happen all the way back in 2016.

How, Blake? How could you possibly know that in advance? Because—and the kids all remember me telling them this, repeatedly—with a Republican in the White House, all the indie Death Star lasers would be devoted to anti-Republican, anti-Conservative, anti-Christian propaganda.

And the thing is, nobody wants to see that. Much like other spaces activists like to occupy, they don’t actually wish to partake of the culture, they just want to control it. But if you agree with it, you don’t want to see it because it’s boring. And if you don’t agree with it, you don’t want to see it…because it’s boring. And also irritating.

Seriously, from 2002-2008, there was a similar issue, with W in office. It wasn’t going to be extreme because everything is more extreme these days. (The Paradox of Tolerance and all that.)

Greg Laemmle is as liberal as you would expect a Jewish movie guy in Los Angeles to be, a sincere believer in all the right causes with biodegradable straws, far left wing documentaries dominate—but he didn’t, e.g., pull a Russian movie out of the theater when we were all (apparently) supposed to start hating Russia. I think he’s a good guy and an honest, hard-working businessman trying to make it in a hostile environment—but he can’t do that when the content doesn’t appeal to anyone.

I only mention it at all, really, because after deciding not to sell the chain, we had the lockdowns which, of course, were another terrible blow to the movie industry generally. And the movie details the struggle of keeping everything running even as the world was imploding, but at no point does Mr. Laemmle ever deviate from the establishment line.

Maybe that’s unfair; I don’t know. I’d be pissed if the government shut me down.

Anyway, it was fun to see all the theaters we’ve visited over the years that have come and gone, and the staff we knew who got small cameos. And the real drama of Laemmles, who seem like a great family with, uh, Mrs. Laemmle (Tish) worried about her husband, who’s just obsessed with the family legacy and what the theater chain means to L.A.

Which brings up another sore point: Here’s a genuine L.A. legacy and the doc is full of glowing interviews about how important it was—Ava DuVernay, Cameron Crowe, James Ivory—but when the chain falls on hard times, there’s crickets from the selfsame community. It should be a freakin’ slam-dunk for the Laemmles to get a low interest loan from, y’know, Hollywood. Tinseltown should be embarrassed that they: a) can’t support an indie movie chain; b) can’t supply content for an indie movie chain; c) can’t even muster charity for an indie movie chain. Item (c) doesn’t even seem to have occurred to anyone.

OK, enough. It’s a good doc. It’s more personal and more immediate than the historic one I wanted, but it’s still good, even if you’re not a regular. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: I’d say important, but that’s a very personal grade. Right now, there are over 100 screens that I consider “near”—near enough to go to see a movie at—and the big chains are all showing the same 14 movies. Of the 14, I’ve seen 3 (at the Laemmle). I have a mild interest in three others. Of the eight remaining, five have been out since November! Even with the lackluster flow of content, I’d be downright screwed without the hard-working Greg. (Seriously, too, I’d never get to see all the weirdo stuff that makes moviegoing fun.)
  2. Bias: It’s totally biased toward the Laemmle and the Laemmles, as am I. Greg and Tish are natives to the city, and I felt a kind of loss when they moved to Portland. It was almost funny to see this sunny, healthy looking couple turn into brooding Portlandians, as they moved from a city where it’s sunny 330 days a year to one where it’s cloudy 300 days a year. I hope the change of scenery helps them enjoy life more. Even if it is life in Portland.
  3. Presentation: Super-plain. There are some nice early photos but it’s mostly interviews. The material gets dramatic and tense at times, as they try to negotiate a sale, and then try to negotiate a lockdown, but it’s fairly plain stuff. This may be the first full-length directorial effort long-time actor Raphael Sbarge and it can’t have been easy trying to navigate the twists and turns over the at least 4 years this was in the works.

Obviously a special event for me and perhaps especially The Boy, who has preferred the Laemmle for as long as he’s been going to the movies. Worth a look.

Yup. ’bout sums it up.

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