February, 2019. We had recently hosted a screening of L.A. Foodways at the Fine Arts. This documentary, about the history of agriculture in Los Angeles, and the current situation with food deserts in certain neighborhoods – where people were unable to easily access fresh fruits and vegetables – delved into a social issue that had interested me for many years. And I was especially happy to see a favorite local charity, Food Forward, as one of the charity beneficiaries of the screening.
I was not surprised that the filmmaker, Raphael Sbarge, had found this a worthy subject for a documentary. His previous film, A Concrete River: Reviving the Waters of Los Angeles has also turned a lens on something of local interest, and it also was able to see the natural land underneath the asphalt and buildings, and express a desire to see the city embrace this topography and hydrology so that L.A. could become a more sustainable and equitable place for its residents. It didn’t hurt that my wife and I appeared as interviewees in A Concrete River. But beyond that, I truly felt that Raphael and I shared a similar hope for the City of Angels.
So when Raphael called me in February, 2019, I was happy to make time to meet with him.
At that meeting, he basically said that he wanted to make Laemmle Theatres the subject of his next documentary. And given his previous films, I thought it was a natural fit. We may not be an environmental organization, but over 80+ years, we have become part of the fabric of the city, and I always hoped that we could grow and adapt, finding ways as a business where we could address some of the challenges confronting our home.
Now over the years, many filmmakers have said that someone “should” make a movie about Laemmle Theatres. But Raphael was the first of them to say that he was going to do it. And within weeks, on March 21 and 22 of 2019, we were sitting in the auditorium at the Fine Arts having the first on-camera interviews. Little did we know how things would change over the course of the next two years.
Without revealing too much, let’s just say that Raphael ended up with a front row seat for two of the more tumultuous years in the history of our three-generation family business. Do we sell? Do we not sell? And then beyond that, how do we survive being closed for 13 months during the coronavirus outbreak?
The film ends on April 9, 2021. The day of the reopening of our theatres. It was a day of hopefulness, but also a day of reckoning. Clearly, and for a variety of reasons, it was going to take some time to reconnect with the audience, and get our business back on track.
As I write this now, with the finished film, Only in Theaters, about to open a theatrical run, how am I feeling? About the film, I feel very honored. I won’t say proud, since beyond sitting for the interviews, I had nothing to do with the production or editing of the film. I trusted Raphael to make the film as he saw fit, and to be honest with his storytelling. But yes, honored.
The reaction to the film at festival screenings across the country has been terrific, and while I know that festival enthusiasm does not always translate to the competitive realities of theatrical exhibition, I am confident that people who do see the film will emerge with a greater appreciation for the moviegoing experience, and by extension, the people who make that experience possible.
The film is not what I thought it would be when I agreed to let Raphael make the movie. But it is honest and true, and that’s what’s important. And as hard as it is for me to watch some portions of the film, I will be forever grateful that it exists.
Only in Theaters opens this Friday, with a full engagement at the Royal, and limited engagements at Claremont, Glendale, Newhall, NoHo and the Town Center. The filmmaker and I will be appearing at all the venues at some point over the first five days of the run for Q&A. Check here for details on which shows will have a Q&A. Whether you can make one of those screenings or not, I hope you’ll take the time to see the film. According to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” we are destined to only find appreciation for things after they are gone. But really, it doesn’t need to be that way. We can appreciate the things that are unique, and that bring beauty and wonder into our lives. And we can support and nurture those things so that they will always be there for us and those that come after us. And you can start doing that this weekend.