The movie man
Greg Laemmle reflects on a life in film and keeping the movie-going experience accessible to all
By Carl Kozlowski 12/01/2011
There are plenty of movie buffs in Los Angeles, but few likely had the access to films that Greg Laemmle had as a child. As the grandson of Max Laemmle, co-founder of the Laemmle Theatres art-house chain, Greg Laemmle was bathed in the glow of movie screens any day or night he wanted.
While he is now the third-generation president of the company, which operates eight theaters with nearly 40 screens across Los Angeles County, including Pasadena’s Playhouse 7, the company is going through some interesting changes right now.
Its longtime West Hollywood location, the Sunset 5 theater, is closing at the end of the month (to be remodeled and reopened by Robert Redford’s chain of Sundance Theaters in the spring), and a new seven-screen theater is opening in North Hollywood in December. In addition, plans are in the works for a new five-screen location in Glendale.
Despite his thriving career, Laemmle almost didn’t enter the family business. Instead, he went to UC Berkeley with hopes of becoming a marine biologist — at least until his father devised a clever way to maintain his passion for pictures.
“My dad, in his wisdom, made arrangements for me to get an all-access screening pass to the [classic movie] theater in Berkeley,” Laemmle recalls. “Being a diligent student, I’d get my work done during the day and go see movies at night. And at that point, with access to the greatest movies in film history, there was no question that I would stay with the theaters.”
Indeed, Laemmle recalls many nights at Berkeley in which the 1,200-seat theater he favored would be sold out while playing the likes of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½.” He laughs during a recent lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant near the company’s modest second-floor headquarters above its Royal Theatre in West LA, marveling at people who don’t appreciate the magic of seeing movies in a theater with a live audience.
“You want interactivity? When they’d show ‘The Graduate,’ people would boo whenever the USC campus came up pretending to be Berkeley,” says Laemmle. “He’s [Dustin Hoffman] also driving the wrong way on the Bay Bridge.”
It’s clear that Laemmle is a man who really loves what he does, a business he conducts from a cluttered yet homey, eight-person office filled with classic film posters and other movie memorabilia. Above his desk are family photos of his patriarchs and predecessors in the business — dad Robert and grandfather Max — along with his wife and 17-year-old triplet sons (“We like to say we multiplex everything,” he quips.) instead of a movie poster, in keeping with his claim that he has no one favorite movie.
“That would be impossible to pick,” he says later during a stroll through the neighborhood, admitting he’s a particular fan of director Preston Sturges’ works.
“So many movies are magic that hits you in different ways at different moments in your life. Sometimes, I want to see ‘8 ½’ again, some days I love to watch ‘Annie Hall.’”
That sort of reasoning reveals the mix of the practical and passionate factors that pervades every aspect of his decision-making as Laemmle keeps the harsh realities of business in mind. He and his staff may love to kick back in theaters, but each day they’re also handling the unglamorous side of the business: bookkeeping, personnel issues, movie print shipping, promotional materials and poster shipping, concession management and maintaining all of their theaters.
The company is handling the current economic downturn well, thanks to the fact that Laemmle considers movie theaters “counter-cyclical” and immune to recessions. He notes that even as prices seem to increase regularly across the nation, movie tickets are still much cheaper entertainment than attending sports events or rock concerts. Still, Laemmle Theatres try to keep prices lower than the norm for the movie biz.
“We’ve been around 74 years, and we try to run an efficient, lean business,” says Laemmle. Carl Laemmle, Greg’s uncle, founded Universal Studios in 1914 but is not affiliated with the Laemmlee Chains.“The Playhouse is the first property we ended up owning, but now we own Claremont, the Playhouse, North Hollywood and the Royal. I think patrons know what to expect from us, and as long as we can find locations where we can serve their needs in a profitable manner, we’re going to stay in business.”
Part of maintaining a loyal customer base lies in respecting their budgets as well, he maintains. Laemmle theaters offer $8 matinees and a top price of $11, while ArcLight Theatres charge up to $16 at prime times. Similarly, the chain’s top popcorn price is $4.75, as opposed to the whopping $7.50 charged by the Mann Theatres chain.
“I guess it’s decency,” explains Laemmle. “The average American sees two or three movies a year, and our average patron goes two or three times a week, so we keep it reasonable to cultivate our audience. We’re trying to provide something for people who are regular moviegoers and not overprice them.
“There are theaters in town that have a whole business model about chasing higher end customers with luxury,” Laemmle continues. “Leaving aside business considerations, I sometimes have problems with that. Movie-going should not only be for the elite.”
The biggest challenge facing theaters, Laemmle believes, is actually the growing use of video-on-demand services offered by cable TV systems, which allow viewers to pick any movie they like on a list at a low price and watch in their own homes at whatever time they like. But to a man like Laemmle, who has such fervor for his experiences with movies like Fred Astaire’s “The Band Wagon” and “The Graduate,” the magic just can’t be found via home viewing.
Laemmle offers one unlikely example of why movies truly hold their magic only when seen with a crowd: A schlocky film called “The Room,” started playing at the Sunset 5 a few years ago as a weeklong “four-wall” rental, for which the film’s writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau paid a fee to show it. The few people who stumbled into the screenings that week quickly spread the word, and it became a camp classic, leading to a longer run that eventually switched over to midnight screenings the last Saturday night of each month.
Since then, “The Room” has sold out on all five screens of the theater during those monthly midnight runs. From there, word spread until it became a cult sensation with sold-out midnight showings around the globe. Much like with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” audiences yell lines back at the screen, throw symbolic objects at the onscreen action and even walk out of the theaters for a mass smoke break during the film’s ludicrous sex scenes.
“Yes, it’s not art, but it’s alternative and has an audience that’s willing to see it at a profitable level,” says Laemmle. “It’s also an awful lot of fun, and I’m not above bad, fun movies. Seeing Steven Seagal’s ‘Above the Law’ on late-night cable TV always holds a fascination for me.”
But ultimately, Laemmle’s success is driven by his willingness to give all types of foreign and artistic films a shot at an audience, even if his most obscure selections get only an 11 a.m. weekend screening or rotate times with one or two other films on a particular screen. A minor indie film that earns a big part of an ultimate $500,000 gross at one of his theaters is just as valuable to Laemmle as an art-house blockbuster like Woody Allen’s $55 million-grossing “Midnight in Paris” or the $100 million-grossing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
“We’ve succeeded because we realize that rule No. 1 is to be profitable but operate with a mission to bring interesting foreign language and independent films to Los Angeles,” says Laemmle. “Understanding that is what we like to do and what they expect us to do.”