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Column: Should the Pasadena Laemmle be saved? Definitely. Can it be saved? It’s complicated

First the ArcLight, now the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

Pasadena, where in the pre-pandemic universe one could find every type of indoor movie theater in the course of a long walk, is facing a future in which the theatrical experience is limited to dine-in (iPic) and discount house (the Regency Academy). This is not to knock either of those theaters. I am a big fan of the Academy, which since the demise of the ArcLight has been showing films in a more first run-adjacent way, and who doesn’t love the occasional visit to the (pricey) iPic?

But for a city that, according to its mission statement, prides itself on its ability to “combine world class events, science and technology, arts and culture, history and architecture with great neighborhoods,” the prospect of losing both its premium multiplex and its iconic art house theater within the span of two years is a blow.

Not just to Pasadena and Playhouse 7 patrons but also to those of us who saw the city’s ability to sustain four movie theaters as proof that exhibition cinema has a future.

That blow is poised to fall within the next few months. Laemmle Theatres sold the Playhouse space in 2020, and their leaseback agreement runs out in April. “We are in negotiations with the new owner,” says Greg Laemmle, who runs the company with his father, Robert. “We are also working with the city to find a new location.”

The COVID-19 pandemic-forced shutdown of movie theaters took a pretty obvious toll on many exhibitors. Some, like Pacific Theatres, threw in the towel; others, like Laemmle, which has theaters at eight locations in Southern California, were forced to re-examine their books.

Like all theaters, Laemmle fell into enormous debt during 2020, but it had the asset of real estate. So in October of that year, the company sold the 22,897-square-foot theater at 673 E. Colorado Blvd. to GD Realty Group of Los Angeles. That same month, Laemmle also sold its property in North Hollywood and then, a few months later, the Royal in West Los Angeles. According to Laemmle, neither the NoHo 7 nor the Royal is in imminent danger of closing, but the NoHo may be facing the same situation as the Playhouse toward the end of this year.

That is to say, erasure. In Pasadena, the Design Commission has approved a concept plan that would convert the Playhouse 7 into a multi-use commercial building. Without a theater.

When news of that approval was made public, fans of the Playhouse 7 were distraught; a petition on change.org to “Save the Laemmle Theater, Pasadena” has collected almost 3,000 signatures. “I don’t want to fight with the new owner,” says Debbie Tannenbaum, a 13-year Pasadena resident who began the petition. “But it’s ridiculous to remove a theater from an arts and culture district.”

The Playhouse 7 is a mile or so from the noise and hustle of Old Pasadena, with its Cheesecake Factory and welter of clothing stores, but for more than 20 years, it has been a vital point along Colorado Boulevard. Within spitting distance of both the Pasadena Playhouse and Target, flanked for years by Vroman’s Bookstore and, more recently, Blaze Pizza, it helps anchor a growing satellite hub of commerce and culture.

The Arclight Pasadena in the Paseo Shopping Center in April 2021. The beloved ArcLight and Pacific theater chains, decimated by the pandemic, have closed for good.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

It’s more than that, of course. As art house theaters teeter on the verge of extinction, the Playhouse 7, one of Laemmle’s most popular, is also beloved for what it symbolizes. As a place to see “foreign” films and indie darlings in velvet seats just lumpy enough to evoke a different era of moviegoing pleasure, it is a reminder that even nonspectacle films are worth seeing on the big screen, even if you can’t recline while seeing them.
But Laemmle is a business, a three-generation local family business with an abiding belief in the theatrical experience, but a business, nonetheless. The proposed closure of any small theater inevitably sparks declarations of local love and essays on the importance of art-house cinema, but none that means much if there are no receipts. As in ticket sales receipts.

“People have to understand, we were closed for 13 months,” says Greg Laemmle. “For most of 2020, there was no support for shuttered businesses. So in order to manage our debts, we put several properties on the market. Pasadena got an offer very quickly.”

Laemmle, like most theater owners, was suffering the plague of Netflix long before the pandemic hit, In 2019, the company put itself up for sale but found no buyers. That year, it closed its historic Music Hall on Wilshire Boulevard, a theater that was mercifully reopened a month later when a group of former Laemmle employees created Lumiere Cinema. Last year, however, Laemmle opened a new theater in Newhall.

Last year is also when Quentin Tarantino bought the Vista, because — as he told Dax Shepherd on Shepherd’s “Armchair Expert” podcast — he believes “boutique theaters” will thrive once the pandemic is over.

That prediction was made during the hot vax summer that didn’t quite happen. Although theaters have stayed open, even during the towering wave of Omicron, box office has remained, with a few notable exceptions, far below pre-pandemic levels.

“I remember thinking, ‘We’re back,’ and then Delta hit,” Laemmle says. “We worked our way back again, with films like ‘Spencer,’ ‘The French Dispatch’ — and then Omicron.”

The Laemmle Theatre's Playhouse 7, featuring a blank marquee

“We are in negotiations with the new owner,” says chain owner Greg Laemmle of the Pasadena site. “We are also working with the city to find a new location.”

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Now, with the end of the leaseback looming, he is unsure of the theater’s fate. “We could extend the leaseback, we could enter a new lease, or we could find a new location,” he says.

A new lease would involve much higher rent.

“The new owner is playing his cards close to his vest, which is his right… Relationships with landlords are by their very nature contentious,” Laemmle says. “We built our business by owning our buildings for that very reason. We could be forgiving with rent on certain buildings we owned because it benefitted us as a brand; there is no reason another owner should.”

What he really wants everyone to understand is that this is about real estate, not the future of movie exhibition. “We are still in the theater business. We’d like to stay in Pasadena.”

Indeed, a sign recently appeared at the Playhouse 7 informing patrons of Laemmle’s commitment to the area.

The still-empty ArcLight makes the situation even more complicated. If AMC were to take over, as it has with some of Pacific’s theaters, including those at the Grove and the Americana, that’s good for Pasadena but more competition for Laemmle at a wildly unpredictable moment. Will people return to theaters once Omicron infections drop? Will another variant emerge? Is Tarantino’s prediction accurate, or just the wishful thinking of a filmmaker who doesn’t want streamers to rule the industry?

When asked what the ideal solution would be, Laemmle pauses, and then vents a long sigh. “Time. I wish we had more time.”

He is very grateful for the support the petition reflects, but it comes down to more bodies in theaters. The art-house demographic has been especially cautious about returning to theaters, which is one reason Laemmle has continued to use “buffer” seating — an empty seat between groups of patrons. “I think going to the movies is safe — there has not been one report of an outbreak that began at a theater — but people need to be comfortable.”

“It is not a pretty picture, as there is likely to be a contraction for us,” he added in a follow up email. “But if people return, we will find ways of adding new venues.”

If the worst-case scenario comes to pass and the chain has to leave Pasadena entirely, well, as Laemmle points out, the Glendale location, opened in 2018, is in no danger of closing, and it has more modern seating. “For years, people drove from Glendale to Pasadena,” he says. “It takes the same amount of time to drive from Pasadena to Glendale.”



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