Review: Long live the arthouse — 'Only in Theaters' celebrates the legacy of Laemmle Theaters

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1992, it was soon obvious I’d be spending a lot of time at Laemmle Theaters. With its mix of American indies, documentaries, international films, and classics on weekends, a Laemmle theater became a comforting space in a new home, assuring me that I wasn’t just in a filmmaking capital, but a moviegoing one too.

I offer this personal frame because it speaks to how connected a lot of Angelenos feel to this family-owned-and-operated chain with the name as old as movies themselves — German-Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle founded Universal more than 100 years ago, Carl’s cousins Max and Kurt opened the first Laemmle moviehouse in 1938, and Max’s son Robert still helps run it today. That history is on affectionate display in Raphael Sbarge’s documentary about these exhibition pioneers, “Only in Theaters.”

Dotted throughout are warm remembrances of epiphanies in the Laemmle-projected dark from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Allison Anders and Nicole Holofcener, alongside engaging observations from historians, critics and film professionals on how important the Laemmles have been to a celebratory, artist-forward film culture in L.A. (The number of films I’ve reviewed for this publication that showed at Laemmle theaters? Too numerous to count. Their artistic, representational, global breadth? Unqualifiable.)

But like a knotty, poignant family business saga you might see on one of their screens, the story here is beautiful and complicated, one in which the twin weights of legacy and calling bear down on the need to survive in changing times. Declining attendance and shifting tastes were already an issue before streaming dealt another body blow to the theater model. With the kind of fare Max’s grandson Greg, the chain’s president, still cared about showcasing — the small, the specialized, the artistically daring, the not-in-English (and whatever “The Room” was) — pulling in ticket buyers has never been harder. And that was before a pandemic threatened movie theaters everywhere with extinction.

Sbarge began filming Laemmle family gatherings (including an aunt’s 103rd birthday) and day-to-day operations in 2019, when Greg made the tough choice to court outside offers to buy the chain. Though intended to give Greg, who’d only known (and worried through) the family business, a chance at a stress-free, opportunity-rich existence, and supported by his adoring wife Tish and three grown sons, the decision only seemed to create added tsuris — was Greg letting down L.A.’s film community, abandoning an 80-year-old cultural mission?

Being privy to this proud, close family at such a heavy, teetering moment is naturally emotional, which means Sbarge’s occasional voice-over commentary and the overactive music score can feel superfluous. But it’s well-intentioned empathy, and when the pandemic hits, and the anxiety brings out Greg’s angioedema (a bee-stung look), you’ll wonder if any job — even one as special as his — is worth the internalized instability. But Sbarge is also there for the chain’s reopenings last year, and while even Greg’s enthusiasm is tinged with neurosis, that feeling of a challenge endured counts as a happy ending.

The Laemmle Royal was where I saw my first movie in a theater after more than a year so deprived, and as I took a seat that afternoon for a two-and-a-half-hour documentary chiseled from rare footage of Stalin’s funeral — only at a Laemmle — I got teary-eyed at this glorious renewal of so cherished an experience. The movie was better for having seen it the way I did, the way the Laemmles cared for it to be shown. There were only six of us, but it felt like a start.

Greg may believe at times, as one of his sons says in “Only in Theaters,” that he’s the captain of a sinking ship. He may not have created the storm, but I’m hopeful his particular boat is sturdier than he realizes. The movie palaces of old answered their time, when studio spectacles demanded matching grandeur. Boxy multiplexes met the call when the four-quadrant blockbuster couldn’t be confined. But the Laemmles have always had their role too — not as an event space but as a neighborhood sanctuary, less cathedral than chapel, where an expanding horizon is more likely to describe what’s inside the moviegoer than what’s literally on the screen. So, long live movie theaters, which is another way of saying, long live the Laemmles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.