L.A. Confidant: Bingham Ray Spirit Award salutes Greg Laemmle’s support of indies

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ShowEast’s Bingham Ray Spirit Award was established in 2012 in the name of the late Bingham Ray, a distribution executive who was a major force in the independent film world. Each year, the award is given to an individual with a similar impact in the independent film arena.

The 2017 winner of the Spirit Award is a very logical choice: When it comes to independent film exhibition in the Los Angeles area, the man at the center of it all is Greg Laemme, the third-generation owner of Laemmle Theatres.

Laemmle Theatres was founded in 1938 by Greg’s grandfather Max and Max's brother Kurt, and then run by his father Robert until Greg took over in 2004. Originally known for its programming of foreign-language cinema, the circuit—with 37 screens in eight Los Angeles County locations—now also showcases documentaries and American independent movies along with international films.

“I am honored that they thought of me,” Laemmle says of the Bingham Ray Spirit Award. “There will come a time when there will be a whole generation of people who won’t know Bingham or his legacy, and I think it’s important to remember both specifically Bingham and also the generation that created the art-house world that we know and love today. My thanks to all of those people who came before.”

Laemmle Theatres is currently in an expansion mode that will bring its number of locations up to twelve. “We have a long-gestating project in Glendale that is in a mixed-use retail/residential building, which is a first for us,” Laemmle notes. “The apartments are starting to get occupied, and we’re just raring to get in and finish up the theatre space. Then we have a project in the north Los Angeles County community of Santa Clarita, which should open sometime in 2019—we’re eyeing a 2018 construction start. We’ve also announced a project in Azusa, again part of a mixed-use retail/residential building. And then we’re in very advanced stages of bringing back the Reseda Theatre in the Los Angeles County community of Reseda, an old single-screen theatre that we think could come back… It’s been closed for quite a while. The last time it was a theatre was in the opening shot of Boogie Nights. There’s a big tracking shot of the marquee, but at the time it was not open.”

With all these projects in the works, Laemmle surely must be bullish on the exhibition business, right? “It’s obviously a scary time to be an exhibitor,” he responds. “It’s always been a scary time. As a circuit we’ve survived the advent of TV and cable and VHS and DVD… But this is the first time windows have gotten so tight—for the first time we’re talking about the theatrical window almost disappearing. But we like to think that people still want to get out of the house. With all these changes, the one thing home entertainment can’t provide is getting you out of the house. We’re trying to be prudent and locate what the changing economics may be, but we do believe there’s still room for exhibition… And if  you’re well located in a neighborhood where people can have a really good experience being out, seeing a movie and going to dinner and having a pleasant evening, I think there’s a real opportunity to bring back moviegoing the way it used to be, which is more regular.

“We believe the ambiance of sharing the experience in the public is always needed. Whether they’re big-budget action films or intimate foreign-language dramas, films just don’t play the same when you’re in a private environment. Part of what makes moviegoing special is being in that dark room with strangers.”

One advantage Laemmle Theatres boasts is that “we have very loyal customers. We build neighborhood-scale theatres—for us, seven screens is big,” Laemmle says. “The programming, just by virtue of limited capacity, is curated, and that leads to conversations about what’s playing, what’s coming and what’s good. We try and make sure our management is informed about these things.”

To keep those loyal customers coming, Laemmle Theatres offers significant discounts via its Premiere Card program. “It’s not really a loyalty program so much as pay in advance and get a bulk discount,” Laemmle explains. “Or load your card with a certain amount and you’ll immediately start seeing a benefit… As expenses go up, that does mean the ticket prices increase. But where we can, we’re looking for all kinds of opportunities to bring down that price point—whether it’s for more regular patrons or for seniors or people who are willing not to go to prime weekend shows… If the average moviegoer sees two or three films a year, our moviegoers are seeing two or three a month, and some of them two or three a week. The only way you can enjoy that many movies is if the price point is reasonable.”

Another draw is the presence of filmmakers for Q&As nearly every weekend. “In many cases, the engagement we’re showing is the only engagement in L.A. and filmmakers want to be there and share it with an audience,” Laemmle notes. “That’s something we encourage. Beyond that, we have other special events. We have a weekly culture series with live capture of stage and ballet. And we do a lot of repertory programming.

“It’s an advantage being in Hollywood, where we can do a 35th-anniversary screening of Victor Victoria and have Lesley Ann Warren come out, or have a screening of Gypsy and have Karl Malden’s daughter speaking about the film.”

Indeed, Laemmle Theatres has a longstanding relationship with the Hollywood filmmaking community. “People look to us to bring in the smaller and less well-supported films and give them an opportunity to see things that are well outside the mainstream,” Laemmle notes. “Historically, Hollywood filmmakers have wanted to see some of this work. This was an opportunity for them to see filmmaking trends from around the world. And indie filmmakers know that they can literally pick up the phone or send an e-mail and they’re going to get to somebody who’s going to answer them. And if the question is ‘How do I get my movie shown?’ we’re going to work with them on that. That’s certainly one of the things I learned from my father: If you can say yes, say yes. Because this is a town where people delight in saying no, because they have the power to say no. At Laemmle, it’s never been about being powerful, it’s always been about creating opportunity.”

Laemmle Theatres is also creating opportunities for artists outside the film medium. Last January, it launched “Laemmle Live,” a monthly live chamber-music performance series featuring local musicians and performers from area schools in the mezzanine lounge of the Monica Film Center in Santa Monica; the program may expand to other locations. (The Monica Film Center will also soon include a rooftop deck and restaurant.) And “Art in the Arthouse” exhibits local artists on the wall space freed up now that digital displays have replaced one-sheets.

Greg Laemmle started in the family business in the early ’80s selling popcorn and joined the circuit full-time in 1988 as a film buyer. Today, he and his wife Tish are the proud parents of triplet sons, Gabriel, Nadav and Ezra.

Laemmle also takes pride in the role he plays in championing independent films:

“I’m happy to say that every year there are one or two smaller films that succeed based on the quality of the film and word of mouth. And that gives me greater satisfaction than the mini-major film that crosses over. While the mini-major film crosses over based on its quality and other things, there‘s also a lot of dollars behind that. When something can succeed and find a little bit of an audience and get a little wind in its sails without that, it gives me great faith in the audience.

“We had this tiny little film called Marjorie Prime, which was adapted from a play but was also truly cinematic. It got a good review, started doing some business, and ended up playing five or six weeks. Interestingly, the filmmaker, Michael Almereyda, we’ve been showing his films since the mid-’80s. It’s really fun when you can have that kind of relationship with a filmmaker over many years.”

Looking at the big picture for independent films, Laemmle contends, “There’s more of a focus than I would like on grosses. That becomes part of the conversation. It always should be, but the public shouldn’t necessarily be watching the box-office numbers, I’d like them to be reading reviews and experimenting more with film. In terms of the filmmaking community, it’s great. The means of production are literally in everyone’s hands. I mean that quite literally when you have something like Tangerine that’s shot on an iPhone. It’s so much easier than it was in the ’70s and the ’80s to make a film, and easier to bring it to market. Although I know a lot of the smaller distributors were very concerned about the VPF programs and how that would impact the rollout, the reality is that not having to make 35mm prints and ship them creates new opportunity for people to get their films out.”

Laemmle views the indie exhibition community as “the unsung heroes of the filmmaking process. And that’s fine—it’s retail, I get it. But as much as they know that people by and large are going to see their film in some sort of ancillary fashion, I think filmmakers still make their movies with the idea of being in a movie theatre. So if we want that to continue, we’ve got to find a way to keep the experience alive, for both the Hollywood films and all the indies out there.”