Save the Movie Theaters!

Hollywood bold names are stepping up to save some of Los Angeles' most beloved movie theaters—but they can't rescue every one.

alta newsletter vista movie theater
Steve Granitz

Celebrities and cinephiles suffered a terrible loss in April when the Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinemas chain announced it was closing all its locations—including the beloved ArcLight Hollywood, a brisk walk of fame from where tourists take pictures with street performers dressed as Spiderman and Minnie Mouse.

On Twitter, the mourning was significant: Famous and non-famous alike were “gutted” by what was, at the very least, a “devastating” “bummer.Elijah Wood was left reeling: “Difficult to process this news.” Poor kid. You can imagine someone sitting him down for a version of the parent-divorce conversation: “Now, Elijah, when a corporation and its customer base can no longer access each other…”

(Others lamented the loss of a place to go to the bathroom in a part of town with, statistically, more public Spidermen than public restrooms.)

During the pandemic, of course, a closure isn’t just a closure. Movie theaters have been one barometer of cultural loss the past year. They represent much of what was paused: dates, family outings, eating stuff in public, planning our evenings around showtimes. The ArcLight’s shuttering was one more sign of treasured things going away. Perhaps forever.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

And in Los Angeles, there’s an added layer of meaning, as theaters showcase the creative output of the city’s most iconic industry. Talk of shifting the whole operation to streaming services had already infuriated some in the biz, like Tenet director and writer Christopher Nolan, who called out Warner Bros. in December for planning to launch all of its 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters as a way of plumping up subscriptions to its app. Nolan, who prefers that his films perplex audiences on the big screen, said the studio was confusing “disruption and dysfunction.”

But in reality, as in cinema, there are no new stories, only reboots. The ArcLight Hollywood’s famous Cinerama Dome theater, at any rate, has been here before.

In 1998, Pacific Theaters planned to turn the site into a retail-entertainment complex. Preservationists raised the alarm about the Cinerama Dome, which is basically the Great Pyramid of Hollywood moviegoing. (Civilizations have risen and fallen since the Dome’s 1963 debut, which is approximately 3,000 years in Southern California time.) It opened to much fanfare over its concrete geodesic structure, and the promise of a future of super-widescreen films in domes around the country. We never saw that future, but the Cinerama Dome did become a coveted spot for film premieres.

Eventually preservationists triumphed, and the exterior received Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument status. There was similar nostalgiapocalypse talk about ends of eras then, as now, since the preservation order didn’t protect the interior, which was renovated and updated and everything turned out fine.

Elsewhere in L.A.’s theater ecosystem, there are now signs of new life: a green shoot out of the cultural soil in the shape of one Quentin Tarantino, who just bought the historic 1920s-era Vista Theatre in Los Feliz, a single-screen movie house that, like many venerable theaters, started in vaudeville, dabbled in porn, and finally settled into respectability. After a renovation, it’ll be up and running later this year.

Tarantino makes no bones about his love of the pure moviegoing experience, as opposed to what’s offered by the corporate popcorn-gobbler movie chains. The Vista will be the film-purist sibling to the New Beverly Cinema, a repertory theater south of Hollywood that Tarantino bought in 2010. The Vista and the New Beverly will show movies shot only on 35-millimeter film—no digital prints, ever. That’s for living rooms, Tarantino says, not theaters.

As for the ArcLight Hollywood, there’s only speculation about its future. Maybe a gang of celebrities will collect themselves and swoop in to save it. Maybe Regal Cinemas will take it over, as it did the Sherman Oaks ArcLight. Or maybe Netflix will buy the place, given that the streamer bought the Egyptian Theatre last year from the nonprofit American Cinematheque. That resulted in a potentially cool marriage in which Netflix and American Cinematheque will co-program the theater when it reopens: the nonprofit screening art films, retrospectives, and double features on the weekend, the streamer hosting premieres and big-ticket events during the week. Sometimes reboots introduce intriguing new storylines.

But for now, the Cinerama sits amid the Spidermen and the Minnies, who are themselves getting back to work. Ancient and ageless, the Great Dome waits for the next feature to begin, comedy or tragedy or maybe just the next chapter in our current satire.•

Brandon R Reynolds is a cultural spelunker living in California.
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