Audiences and exhibitors may have been cheering the Spider-Man movie for months, but 2022’s most emotional theatrical experience so far is watching Greg Laemmle struggle with the fate of his family’s eponymous arthouse business in the documentary “Only in Theaters.”
Premiered at the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival in March, “Only” inevitably focuses on the 84-year-old Southern California theater chain’s struggle to survive — first during the 2019 downturn in specialty film attendance and then through a yearlong, COVID pandemic shutdown. The wear on the company’s third generation president is palpable and poignant.
“I’m, at some level, better than I seem in the film,” Laemmle tells Variety a year after his theaters reopened. “There have definitely been some less-than-positive developments during the 12 months since we’ve been open, but there have been some positive things, to be sure.”
Laemmle could be speaking for the whole American arthouse sector, which has undergone doomsday cycles since its postwar emergence but, as Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard says, “It’s always been there, it constantly evolves, everyone says it’s dead but it never is.”
Recent positive signs include decent box office for indie and international releases that earned Academy Award nominations, such as “Drive My Car,” “The Worst Person in the World” and “Licorice Pizza.” Although streamers have been a knife at theatrical’s throat since well before the pandemic magnified their stay-at-home effect, at least Apple TV Plus put “CODA” on some 600 big screens the weekend after it won the best picture Oscar. A24’s late March titles “X” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” attracted good-sized, younger crowds.
Yet older moviegoers, the core audience for foreign-language and other adult-skewing films, remain the most reluctant audience segment to venture back into theaters while COVID variants continue to evolve. Specialty distributors held back releases in the wake of indifferent box office through late 2021 and early ‘22, and exhibitors say their biggest challenge is booking enough attractive product to lure back discerning viewers.
Still, there’s cautious optimism.
“We are definitely starting to see positive signs,” says Kevin Holloway, who became president of Landmark Theaters in January following stints at other national specialty chains Alamo Drafthouse and, before that, the pandemic-obliterated ArcLight Cinemas. “The biggest thing for us is to continue to get product availability. There’s no question some of these movies can be expensive to market and get out for theatrical release in a meaningful way, so many of them can often be shifted to a truncated window or day-and-date strategy.”
Although Landmark has closed venues in New York, Houston and the San Francisco Bay Area in the past two years, it’s reactivated others among its 35-odd locations. Plans are to open three theaters this summer, including one at a former ArcLight site in suburban Glenview, Ill. Landmark’s legendary Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles is undergoing a 10-week shutdown, but that’s to put in a bar and upgrade seating and concessions.
“There’s still a lot of road to cover, but we want to be the leader in specialty and independent cinema, as we have been,” Holloway says of Landmark, which mixes indie with quality mainstream fare in some markets. “We’re also looking at how we can really position our locations in unique ways to be entertainment destinations.”
SPC’s Bernard adds that innovation, from programming to partnerships to internet outreach, will be key to success going forward.
“The future of arthouse is reaching the audience,” Bernard says. “I don’t think the theaters need to be the super duper multiplexes with every bell and whistle. They need to program for the audience, and reach that audience to let them know what’s been programmed for them.”
For Bernard, that means taking lessons from the Virtual Cinema program that partnered distributors with operators around the country during the lockdown. The online rental initiative was a way to keep in touch with clientele and make a little money, if hardly enough to replace theatrical. Something like that strategy worked for SPC during “Parallel Mothers’” Oscar run. Although Pedro Almodóvar’s latest feature grossed about half of what his previous one, “Pain and Glory,” did pre-pandemic, Bernard says much of the difference was made up during a three-week PVOD window for the acclaimed Penélope Cruz-starrer.
But that didn’t do arthouse operators any good. Before government assistance grants for shuttered venues arrived, Laemmle survived by selling ownership in some of its properties. It now operates venues such as Pasadena’s Playhouse 7 and the NoHo 7 in North Hollywood on monthly lease-backs. Although he doesn’t expect all eight of his locations will remain open, Greg Laemmle confirms that the business his grandfather Max co-founded in 1938 has the resources to keep showing art films through the rest of this year and into 2023.
“Once we can have an environment again where people aren’t afraid to be in public, I believe that we’re going to get our audience back,” Laemmle says. “It’s going to take time. But the opportunity to see it in a theater is a better experience for just about any type of movie. We just need to reacquaint people with it.”
Exhibitors have high hopes for such spring releases as Focus Features’ “The Northman” and “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” France’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Happening,” and SPC’s British golf warmedy “The Phantom of the Open.”
As for “Only in Theaters,” the Raphael Sbarge-directed documentary is making the rounds of film festivals and seeking a distributor that can put it in the arthouses where it demands to be seen.
“I did tell Raphael, why are you making the movie about me? You should make the movie about arthouse operators in general,’” Laemmle says. “We’re all really passionate about what we do. It’s just so great to have a product that you love, it’s something that really gets into people’s blood and we’re just not going to give it up that easily.”