Building community: In 75th anniversary year, Laemmle Theatres looks forward


The last time Film Journal International profiled the Los Angeles, Calif.-based exhibitor family behind Laemmle Theatres in 2009, a very different-looking Royal Theatre was gracing our coverage. Since then, the single-screen art house, featuring “one of the most iconic signs of West Los Angeles [that] has for more than 40 years heralded the best in art and foreign cinema to the continuous flow of traffic along Santa Monica Boulevard,” was tastefully upgraded to a three-plex.

Offering a gorgeous lobby with an overall artful approach to design (and programming to match), Laemmle’s Royal makes a perfect match for this issue’s focus on design and construction. And, of course, with a history that traces back to the late 1920s, the Royal sheds additional light on our continuing report on how classic cinemas have chosen to go digital.

For its full-on renovation and upgrade, the Royal chose Christie projectors, GDC servers and Dolby 5.1 audio, all installed by Southern California Cinetech. While some of the theatres in the Laemmle circuit retained 35mm set-ups for special presentations, Christie products were installed throughout all other six locations and 31 additional screens.

“Christie is also our integrator,” confirms company president Gregory S. Laemmle. “We found a financing solution with them that was friendlier for small distributors.” In particular, Laemmle mentions “the flexibility this type of VPF arrangement provides to independents playing limited engagements at our theatre. This was also the first time that our design could take full advantage of digital. We were able to carve out multiple auditoriums without having to allocate additional space… We also got back space in the old projection booth which has now been put to other uses. This helped tremendously with the efficiency of the new layout.”

The Royal is completely boothless now, having instead deployed “cubicles, basically, for the projectors, with library servers and everything else located in the box office.” That way, he opines, “staff can input movie files and set playlists while still being available to customers.”

Before the Royal redo, Laemmle Theatres had already opened a seven-plex in the hip neighborhood of North Hollywood, or NoHo for short, built from the ground up by Howard CDM, who executed the work at the Royal as well, and who graciously made arrangements for us to reprint the beautiful photos accompanying this article. On the flip side of change, Laemmle Theatres had to give up two of its leasehold locations—Sunset 5 to Sundance Cinemas and Fallbrook 7 to AMC Theatres.

What has remained unchanged from our last report is the “community commitment” of the company. Owned and operated in the second and third generations by Greg and his father, Robert Laemmle, the circuit was established in 1938, when Bob’s father Max and his uncle Kurt Laemmle took over a neighborhood theatre in Highland Park. (In case you are noticing the family resemblance, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, was a second cousin to circuit founders Max and Kurt.)

“The closure of the Sunset and Fallbrook locations,” Greg Laemmle says, “has reinforced our feeling that as a family business we really need to be our own landlords. Mall owners are looking for national-credit tenants and they do not necessarily appreciate, although they should, what we bring to the table.” A case in point is Fallbrook, which Laemmle took over in December 2001 after the location had closed and sat empty for some time. True to the company mandate of catering to the neighborhoods it serves, West Hills in this case, Laemmle then brought a more upscale feel to Fallbrook, both in operations and programming.

“There is no question that we did something to improve the location and we developed a really great and regular audience,” he concurs. “It was an audience of seniors mostly, who appreciated the community experience, and our films. They were price-conscious and obviously not huge concession buyers.” So when it came to negotiating new lease terms, “we know what we can pay and who our audience is. Especially when you are successful, there is always going to be someone who says, ‘Well, we can do better. And we’ll pay for that success.’ AMC is now going in with a concept that is going to attract people that will spend more per visit,” he notes. “If you aim for a younger audience, they will always spend more at the concessions.”

And indeed, AMC Theatres is in the process of remodeling the entire facility with the declared goal “to turn this theatre into one of the nicest in the country.” With an anticipated fall completion, upgrades will include power recliner seats with footrests in every auditorium. Over on Sunset Boulevard, the amenities are such that Sundance Cinemas speaks of “the place…in West Hollywood (and beyond) to watch a movie and enjoy beer or wine, and have a quick and delicious snack."

“They actually still have our sign up there,” Laemmle chuckles before praising what a fantastic job Sundance did in renovating the facility. “We operated there just shy of 20 years,” he notes, reminding us that it was once again a local operator who had taken on a new and unproven location first. “The theatre was hugely successful for us…but as you approach the end of your lease term, the landlord will tell you how ‘rundown’ the property is and that ‘you don’t maintain it.’ Well, we don’t know how much longer we are going to be here. If you would give us some clarity on that front, we’ll step up.” In a business environment, “bemoaning the loss of a lease is silly, but finding an alternate solution is certainly not.” Speaking as a true entrepreneur, Laemmle points out that “we have the competence and the ability to develop our very own locations from concept to financing, to actually building and operating these theatres.”

The Playhouse 7 in Pasadena was the first under that policy, then Claremont 5 in the town of the same name. North Hollywood was next, followed by the Royal. “After many, many years of being just a tenant, we acquired the Royal in 2009.” Explaining why Laemmle “didn’t immediately move on the remodeling,” he says, “we were in the middle of doing NoHo and that was a major project for us.” To give each development the full attention that it deserved, things “would need to happen in sequence.”

And the Laemmle team moved quickly after NoHo opened in December 2011. By August 2012, construction was underway at the Royal, for a Dec. 19 reopening with an exclusive engagement of Amour.

What did it take to turn this 660-seat classic into three state-of-the-art screens? “One of the primary considerations was maintaining some of the historical features and elements. The Royal has a beautiful proscenium arch and we wanted one of the new stadium auditoriums to fully incorporate that historic front. After determining what the right dimensions of that main house would be,” Laemmle and the design and construction teams looked into “how to best use the rest of the space in the rear of the original auditorium.”

Access to the 180-seat main screen was provided on one side, going past the other two auditoriums and under the beams for earthquake reinforcement that were smartly incorporated as a design element. Placed side-by-side, guests enter at the rear and step down spacious stadium rows for capacities of 75 and 45 seats by Seating Concepts. An advantage in constructing the smallest auditorium, Laemmle says, was that a second exit is not required for houses with under 50 seats. Expanding down into the ground or otherwise out of bounds was not necessary either. “We worked within the existing slope and stayed entirely within the envelope of the building. We extended a bit into the former auditorium space, however, not so much to create a bigger lobby but to bring the concession stand up to code.”

Framed photos of the Laemmle family and visiting filmmakers alongside other theatre memorabilia adorn the lobby’s designer-blue walls. “I came up with the idea for the dense photo display based on the concept of having the Royal lobby look and feel like an English sitting or club room. Our decorating consultant ran with that idea on colors and textures.” Together with marketing and branding consultant Marc Horowitz, who also worked on the company rebranding and web image, Laemmle “selected items to include on the wall that would provide some representation of history and genesis of Laemmle Theatres. In addition to assisting with curating, Marc connected us with a framer, and supervised the installation of all the pieces.”

Operational changes were executed as well. “We were able to incorporate an indoor box office which, even though we currently do not offer reserved seating, will make that possible in the future as it also makes for a more comfortable and human interaction now.”
Changes are visible on the outside as well. “We removed the marquee, which had been put up some time during the 1950s to ’60s. It was very distinctive but it was really at odds with the neoclassic structure of the building. Instead we selected a new marquee design” that still uses traditional letters, he assures. “It is more in keeping with the lines of the building and harkens back to what we have seen in historic photos of the theatre” when it operated as the Tivoli.

“At Laemmle NoHo, we definitely believed something a bit more industrial and useful would be in order.” Laemmle describes “cement floors and a high open ceiling, with a less fussy type of architecture. And, maybe, just a little cleaner, streamlined look overall.

“The Royal is very different in almost every aspect,” he continues. “Other than perhaps being clean and efficient as well, it couldn’t feel more different. What both locations have in common is that they fit in perfectly with what’s on the street. That’s what Laemmle Theatres are all about,” he adds. “We are celebrating our 75th anniversary this year and we started out as a neighborhood theatre. While we don’t want to back away from our position as a place where people travel to, from all over the city and around the country, to see some of the more unique films that we play, ultimately our goal is still to be a neighborhood chain. Wherever people live in Los Angeles, we want them to look at Laemmle as their neighborhood theatre.”

“People are looking for authentic urban environments and experiences,” Laemmle believes. Going forward, “we will continue to target areas that have been bypassed, in some respects, by the bigger players. We are looking at opportunities that represent dense, downtown-like experiences in order to design, develop and operate theatres that fit in with the framework of the community that surrounds them.”

For the birthday festivities, Laemmle intends to concentrate on those very neighborhoods as well. “We are also celebrating a little over ten years now for the Laemmle Charitable Foundation. We support the communities that support us. Laemmle is very active in Los Angeles promoting environmental and educational initiatives,” he elaborates. “It’s part and parcel of who we are, in that both my father and I ride our bikes to work. Anyone who works more than 1,000 hours a year for us gets a TAP pass so that they can ride for free on the Metro. You know, Los Angeles is never going to be a car-free environment,” he acknowledges. “If you really follow through on this neighborhood and public transit concept, however, there are opportunities for people to get to theatres without the car…and we are encouraging that.”

This author couldn’t help but ask whether we might see a repeat performance of the Ted Mann/Simms Family Foundation’s gracious donation of $5 million to build a screening room at the new Academy Museum. Especially now that Greg Laemmle was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as an associate member. After a hearty and friendly laugh, he responds. “We are part of the industry and we want to continue to deepen our relationship with the Academy, but we are not in the position of making such a generous gift.” That said, the Laemmle Charitable Foundation gave away more than $100,000 last year alone. “We hope to continue and to grow that element of what we do. It’s about being part of a community, both in terms of our industry and the City of Los Angeles… We want Laemmle Theatres to serve as conduit from film to food, from film to exercise, and from film to the environment. Los Angeles is a great place to live and we want to encourage people to enjoy all that it has to offer.”

Oscar Calling Laemmle
“I am the first member of my family to have been asked to join. And it is a terrific, wonderful and great honor.” Gregory Laemmle (pictured in this feature with his father Robert) is the third-generation president of Los Angeles-based Laemmle Theatres and first exhibitor in many years invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

As someone who was always disappointed that the exhibition industry was not represented in the venerable institution that celebrates and honors the films we all watch and enjoy best in movie theatres, the announcement piqued this author’s curiosity. While master showman Sid Grauman was a founding member of the Academy, albeit in a producer function, have there been other exhibitors? Marcus Loew and William Fox certainly could have been members, via their ownership of MGM and Fox studios, respectively. (All the important chains owned studios, and studios had their own chains of theatres, after all.) And closer to today, Sumner Redstone of National Amusements is likely to have joined in one of his many executive leadership functions at Viacom, Paramount, et al.

Thankfully, the Academy has an incredible archive and research team to match one’s curiosity. “Membership information is not something the library has access to beyond what the Academy chooses to announce publicly,” says Libby Wertin, reference librarian at the Margaret Herrick Library. While FJI has monitored the releases announcing membership invitations since they were made public in 2009, Wertin shares that “during the early years of the Academy’s history, they used to include membership rosters in some of the organization’s newsletters and other publications.” Following some of her leads within the Academy Publications collection, we could confirm that David L. (son of Marcus) Loew had joined the Producers Branch by August 1945.

In the 1930 Annual Report, we learned that Harold B. Franklin, a legendary vaudeville booking agent and subsequent operations man for Famous Players-Lasky and Fox-West Coast Theatres, had attained Special Membership status. What was “Special” then is “At Large” and “Associate” today. Gregory Laemmle falls in the latter group, and Wertin explains the difference. “The most current version of the bylaws in the library’s collection [Bylaws 2011, page 4] describes Associate members as ‘special members without votes who may be persons not employed by production units of the motion picture industry. Such memberships shall be conferred by a majority vote of the Board of Governors and Members-at-Large as ‘members engaged in crafts not included in the foregoing branches and with the exception of retired Members-at-Large shall be entitled to all privileges of active membership except representation on the Board.’”

Gregory Laemmle may not get to vote on the Oscars, but he certainly has our vote and that of his fellow Academy members. In proposing new members, the Academy asks to “please make sure you are confident the candidate has truly ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ before you agree to be one of his or her sponsors.” Greg, you and your family surely qualify.