Los Angeles’ film community is still crossing its fingers that the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood might be able to find a second life, but just a few miles away, another historic cinema, the Lumiere Music Hall, is back up and running after nearly joining the Dome on the list of institutions knocked out by the pandemic.
As recently as February, operators Peter Ambrosio, Lauren Brown and Luis Orellana were on the verge of giving up the theater, but are now among hundreds of cinema owners that have enjoyed a rapid reopening process in Los Angeles thanks to plummeting COVID infection rates. The story of the Lumiere’s survival is similar to thousands of theaters owners nationwide, filled with frantic phone calls, hours of number-crunching, a labyrinth of government aid programs, and just some good, old-fashioned luck.
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“We just had to be very, very nimble,” Ambrosio told TheWrap. “There were a lot of anxious nights and close calls and a couple of times where it really did look like we were going to have to close for good.”
The Music Hall traces its history back to 1937 as one of several theaters that existed at a time when Beverly Hills was a hot spot for stage shows. But it became part of local cinema history when it was converted to a movie theater in 1956, becoming the place to see the latest from international filmmakers like Federico Fellini.
When theaters nationwide began to shut down last March, the Lumiere team had just started to get a foothold in the industry. The trio had bought the theater in 2019 from Laemmle Theaters, which had operated the Music Hall since 1974 and was letting it go amid a financial downturn. The new Lumiere had just a few months to get acquainted with film distributors and local moviegoers during an awards season in which the Music Hall hosted special screenings of films like Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winner “Parasite.”
“Like everyone else, we were expecting that we would only be closed for a couple of weeks, or a couple of months at worst,” Brown said. “There was a point in June where we thought we were a week away from reopening.”
But like the rest of the American theater industry, such optimistic plans for getting back in business were crushed by pandemic reality. Even as other parts of the country made what would be a failed reopening attempt with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the Music Hall was stuck with the rest of Los Angeles in the lowest tier of California’s reopening system.
As “Tenet” opened last Labor Day weekend, the Music Hall staff began to feel the squeeze as its initial one-year lease had expired. Ambrosio said that for the next six months, there was only one goal for Lumiere: “Delay, delay, delay.”
“We had all these little streams of money that gave us just enough to keep going while we made deals with insurance companies and utility companies. We had the phone shut off three times. We had the internet shut down at another point,” he said. “Meanwhile, we were just hitting the phone and the internet looking for different ways we could get a little extra cash to show the landlords we had something coming in, even if it wasn’t nearly enough for rent.”
Among the piecemeal revenue streams were some delayed ad payments from Oscar season, a GoFundMe the team set up and a forgivable loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The theater also reopened to sell popcorn to nearby residents, a gambit that proved more of a public gesture than a revenue driver. “Along with the GoFundMe, it was just a way to stay in touch with the community, to remind everybody that we’re not gone and we’re still fighting to stay open,” Orellana said.
Meanwhile, the team got help from the Pacific Coast Small Business Development Center, which Ambrosio said was “invaluable” in helping demystify the dozens of COVID-19 business loan and grant programs that had been made available. “They had us applying for five different loans, even some that we weren’t sure we qualified for but which they told us, ‘No, you’re good. Apply for that as well,” he said.
One of those forgivable SBA loans was the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, an automated loan program that got overloaded with applications from businesses shuttered during the pandemic. Trevor Shickman, who was the Music Hall’s contact at the Small Business Development Center, said it took nearly a year for the theater to get money from EIDL.
“If it had been a normal natural disaster like a hurricane, the Music Hall would have had a case manager looking at their taxes and at their box office and be dedicated to their case. But because there were too many applicants and not enough staff, guys like Peter fell through the cracks,” Shickman said. “It was a Kafkaesque crusade to get through the process. He had me ring up about 15 different contacts at the SBA to get this money.”
But by February, the Lumiere Music Hall seemed to run out of time. With California still coming out of a dark winter in which daily new COVID-19 cases reached as high as 45,000 per day, the theater was handed an eviction notice and told to leave by the end of the month. Ambrosio had hoped that Congress’ passage of a $15 billion grant fund specifically for shuttered entertainment venues would buy the theater more time, but like thousands of would-be applicants, they were left waiting for the Small Business Administration to set up the program.
“They weren’t evicting us on eviction grounds. They were evicting us on grounds that our lease had ended. I sent an email saying that we were leaving, and it felt like that was it. We started moving our stuff out and getting ready to send back some of the equipment we had leased from Laemmle,” he said. “That was February 24. I wake up February 25 and check my email, and I discover that Los Angeles is extending the eviction moratorium to June 30. And suddenly I’m thinking of all these possibilities.”
After consulting with their legal advisers, and just hours before they were set to hand over the keys, the Lumiere informed their landlords that they were staying in the theater on the grounds that there were still pending loans that could pay off back rent, including the EIDL application.
Two weeks later, theaters in Los Angeles were cleared to reopen with 25% capacity. “We felt so incredibly vindicated. If we had turned over the keys, we wouldn’t have been able to go back into business just weeks later,” Ambrosio said.
In the weeks since the March 19 reopening, the Music Hall, along with the rest of Los Angeles, has seen COVID-19 infection rates drop dramatically, leading to loosening of COVID-19 restrictions. The theater has been screening films from this year’s Oscar race like “Sound of Metal,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Time” and “My Octopus Teacher.”
The Lumiere team said that they’ve seen steadily growing business in the lead-up to the Oscars, and they are optimistic that once more new specialty films return to theaters they will be able to put the pandemic behind them.
But for now, they still must pay back rent and other outstanding payments after a year of closures. Shickman and Ambrosio said they have received a portion of the EIDL loan money owed by the SBA to the theater, but are still pushing for more. Meanwhile, Lumiere was finally able to apply last week to the Shuttered Venue Operators grant program passed by Congress last December, which will allow them to receive up to 45% of revenue lost from the pandemic.
But for now, independent cinema is back on the screen at the Music Hall, and Ambrosio, Brown and Orellana are finally able to think again about their big vision for the theater’s future rather than trying to figure out if it even has a future at all. “We are already getting calls for four-walls and for new films like ‘Fear and Loathing in Aspen,’ which was about Hunter S. Thompson running to become a sheriff in Colorado,” Brown said. “There’s interest for films coming up through July.”
“We want to be part of this tradition of keeping cinema alive in L.A.,” Ambrosio added. “This is a movie town and we love being a part of that community and contributing to it. We only have one 35mm projector, and I want to get two more and put them in each screen. Just make the theater a whole cinephile package.”