For the past two years, a gaping hole has appeared in the heart of L.A.’s cultural scene, as the city’s cinematic infrastructure had lost a large piece of its lifeblood: Our beloved art house movie theaters. As entertainment is the city’s largest industry, it’s incredible how weak the independent theater sector has become in L.A. This is the city that once boasted outlets for any type of film. Now, it feels like L.A.’s failing on its promise.
The Arclight Theaters shuttered its doors in April of 2021, and the re-opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre has been delayed until fall/winter since Netflix’s purchase of it in May of 2020; the Vista Theater in Los Feliz doesn’t seem to be reopening anytime soon after shutting down in March of 2020; and Landmark’s flagship multiplex theater in West L.A. closed its doors in May of 2022. We all know that the Covid-19 pandemic is what brought about all of these closures, but even two years after theater doors’ big reopening, why is there such a lack of independent cinemas in this city?
Ted Mundorff, former president and COO of Arclight and Landmark Theaters, says the shuttering of these two chains is a key reason for the dwindling of L.A.’s art house culture. “They launched movies that we may never had heard of,” he explains. “They elevated the independent film scene in Los Angeles.”
Gregory Laemmle, CEO of what’s considered to be the last true art house cinema chain in the L.A. area, Laemmle Theatres, sees the business end of the dilemma clearly.
“We are operating on the idea that this is a re-developing business that needs to reconnect with audiences,” he tells LAMag. “This was a business that was closed for a year and has not had a clean opportunity to regroup. When an athlete gets injured, they’re given an opportunity to regain their form.”
Yet the problem runs deeper than lack of audience. The city’s infrastructure and layout are contributing to the dying theater fronts as well. The number of art-house theaters is already small enough as it is; the stretched-out geography of L.A. often makes it an annoying chore to get to the one theater playing an art film one wants to see.
“The fact that so many theaters closed has made it hard for audiences. There’ve been so many points of access taken away,” states Maggie Mackay, Executive Director of L.A.’s premiere video store, Vidiots. Planning its re-opening in just a few months after closing its Santa Monica location in February 2017 due to poor rental numbers, its new Eagle Rock location will come equipped with a 250-capacity theater, a flexible microcinema with 35 seats, and a bar for curated screenings, retrospectives, and a variety of cinema events.
“Especially in a city like Los Angeles where going anywhere by vehicle is a very specific time commitment, and arguably movies are now three-plus hours long, movies are not as easy as they used to be if you’re talking about your time… They’re siloed to different parts of the city.”
In turn, the result is low financial support for these theaters. Their proximity and sparse screenings kill the incentive to go out of the way to see a movie, as opposed to a city like New York, whose art-house culture hasn’t dwindled nearly as much, post-pandemic, as most NYC theaters successfully reopened. Theaters such as the Village East, Metrograph, and Nitehawk Cinemas lie within relatively close proximity to each other, stimulating a healthy art-house ecosystem with a variety of revival, limited-release, and wide-release screening.
Add to L.A.’s wide layout the fact that a plethora of new streaming services, while getting eyeballs on some indie and art films, don’t exactly help keep art-house theaters alive either. Now that independent films are given shorter theatrical runs, they almost immediately need to be released on services such as HBO Max or Amazon, or on more niche services such as MUBI or Shutter, to be seen outside of their limited-release of festival windows. This strategy, known as “day and date release,” limits a film’s potential gross.
“We’ve seen that the ‘day and date,’ or bypassing theatrical, is not leading to the pot of gold that was promised,” confirms Laemmle.
Mundorff says he feels independent films need special care. “Back before the pandemic, films were curated and nurtured during their engagement… but those theaters don’t exist,” he says. “But I do think there’s an appetite for indie films—I just think they have to be shown in the right atmosphere.”
Micah Gottlieb, programmer of Mezzanine—an independent film series operating out of 2220 Arts + Archives in Historic Filipinotown—maintains an optimistic outlook on the future of art-house movie-going in L.A. in the face of streaming. “No matter how good streaming is, people are always going to want a reason to leave the house,” states Gottlieb. “And it’s the role of curators, programmers, distributors, and exhibitors, to reach those audiences and do that work of audience engagement. Because I think without that, they’re not going to see improved results. No one’s making movies just so people can watch them at home. [Filmmakers] want to have that big screen experience.”
Having begun operations in February of 2022, Mezzanine is just one of the few grassroots film programs that have sprouted out of the fertile breeding ground across Los Angeles as a result of this theater void – ones that aim to deliver more than just a movie-going experience by fusing different sides of L.A’s art scene. Mezzanine describes itself as “an irregular independent and revival film series,” programming screenings one wouldn’t necessarily see around L.A. nonetheless streaming services, such as selections from directors Jacques Rivette or Arnaud Desplechin.
“What L.A. was missing was a place where the film community and art community could intersect,” expresses Gottlieb. “And because Mezzanine ultimately is a series, not an institution, that allows for more experimentation and more hybrid kinds of programming.” Screenings are usually programmed in collaboration with local filmmakers, artists, and curators and include Q&A’s and conversations; one recent installment saw a shorts program consisting of video art, Tik-Toks, and a retrospective of Stan Douglas’s broadcast work curated by filmmaker Daniel Schmidt.
Other independent film theaters, such as Brain Dead Studios in Fairfax and Echo Park’s WHAMMY! Analog Media, has also emerged in the past few years, following suit and opening a doorway between art-house film and other L.A. cultures. Brain Dead Studios, which focuses traditionally on American and foreign independent cult classics, for example, has not only infused art-house film with gallery viewing but also streetwear through their larger brand. On the other hand, WHAMMY! Analog Media, a VHS and microcinema outlet which highlights local filmmakers, aims to mend grassroots filmmaking with stand-up comedy.
“We art house managers are a strange breed,” Laemmle declares. “It’s a business but also a passion. We’re stubborn, and we’re not giving up easily.”
For all the turbulence L.A.’s art house world has suffered, the feel of its comeback as a different beast is palpable. The experience in these theaters is largely about intimacy; this has always been its key appeal, and it’s also why, for film fans, these cinemas are such a treasured part of this city. Intimate storytelling will never go away and these past two years have now produced what looks to be some potent outlets to keep the scene growing.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.