Film Review: “Only in Theaters” — Tough Times for a West Coast Art House Movie Chain

By Ed Symkus

Southern California’s venerable Laemmle Theatres is facing a triple whammy: financial failure, shrinking audiences, and Covid closures.

Only in Theaters, directed by Raphael Sbarge, is screening at the West Newton Cinema.

Will Greg sell the Laemmle Theatre chain or won’t he? Photo: The Film Collaborative

A lot of ground is covered, plenty of questions are asked, and infinite opinions are offered in this relatively short (94 minute) documentary on Southern California’s illustrious Laemmle Theatres, the independent, family-owned chain of art house cinemas that’s been in operation since 1938.

Ostensibly centered on the current state of moviegoing, during which audiences are choosing to burrow into their living room couches in front of large screen televisions rather than hop in the car and head to the local cinema, Only in Theaters is actually much more about the Laemmle family and their multigenerational mission than about whether people will continue going to the movies. It’s a many-tiered story of survival that makes excellent use of intimacy, tension, and drama.

The Laemmle history goes back to Carl Laemmle, a German immigrant who, after moving to the States, got into movie exhibition, then production, then founded Universal Pictures in 1912. He later invited his nephews Max and Kurt Laemmle to come over from Germany and work with him. They eventually chose the exhibition route, opening their first theater in 1938. Since then, a Laemmle has run the company. Kurt stepped down, Max’s son Robert took over when Max had enough, and now Robert’s son Greg is calling the shots. He is the documentary’s protagonist, its voice.

Shot mostly in 2019, when business wasn’t quite up to snuff and financial concerns were turning into anxious worries, the film presents Greg as a genial fellow who loves what he does, despite having to grapple with the ever-demanding hardships springing up around him. Constantly sharing his thoughts with the camera, it’s clear that — though his smile is genuine — he is beset with a sense of frustration. Will he and his incredibly supportive wife Tish be able to stay in business or have to sell off part or all of the 41-screen chain?

Actor-turned-director Raphael Sbarge concentrates on the Laemmles, but opens the film up to raising other questions and speculation. Could it be that small independent films simply aren’t turning big enough profits? Or are streaming services the culprits, cutting into revenues? Talking heads, including critics Leonard Maltin and Kenneth Turan and filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, praise the Laemmles for the way they’ve supported the indie scene. Segments give us directors Cameron Crowe and James Ivory recalling the films that impressed them as kids — Crowe expounds on Carnal Knowledge, Ivory repeatedly watched Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. These discussions lead into issues of economics and the cultural value of community. We hear why cinemas need to be championed — to preserve the shared experience of hundreds of strangers sitting in a theater, reacting as one to what’s on the screen.

What separates the Laemmle cinemas from more commercial multiplexes? Sbarge provides the answer via a camera that floats through a collection of posters from films the chain screened, among them My Life as a Dog, Blue Velvet, La Dolce Vita, Swept Away, Jules et Jim, A Man and a Woman, Seven Samurai, and The Rules of the Game. Then he takes it even further in a montage of Laemmle-programmed events: “Trilogy of Greek Tragedy,” “New Wave and Old,” “Cinema Italiano,” “A Tribute to Orson Welles,” and “Dance Film Festival.”

But alongside the congratulations, Only in Theaters keeps returning to the problem at hand for the Laemmle family: Will Greg sell the chain or won’t he? And if he doesn’t, how will he keep things afloat? The answer is provided at about the one-hour mark, and it’s not all that surprising. But by that point in the film, most viewers, film lovers most of all, will know that a powerful hammer blow is coming in 2019, the year before the plug was pulled on moviegoing due to Covid.

The film’s final half-hour is packed with drama and emotion. Will the Laemmle family save its business? Maybe. Would Covid destroy it? It seemed pretty likely: we see depressing footage of empty streets and shuttered businesses. One Laemmle marquee gallantly tried to maintain a sense of humor by suggesting that if they were open, they would be showing Mask.

Filming of the documentary continued during lockdown via Zoom interviews, with Greg looking and sounding weary and defeated, wondering out loud if he should just jump ship. Things turn downright gloomy. But, on March 5, 2021, cinemas started reopening in New York City. A week later, the West Coast followed suit. Without giving away what happened to the Laemmles and their theaters, it’s safe to say the film ends on a note of hope.

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Edward Gorey, Ray Bradbury, Ted Nugent, and Woody Allen, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.

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