As movie lovers, and especially as movie lovers who value the theatrical experience, it’s been a hard few years, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, which seemed the death knell of the theatrical experience. Movie theaters, those great gathering places to be together, or alone together, taking in big screen dreams, closed as the airborne virus swept the globe, and streaming behemoths filled the void with a never-ending beam of content pointed directly into our homes.
Would movie theaters survive? What of the theaters that specialize in arthouse, international and indie content? Would anyone ever want to leave their house for a movie again? These questions plagued the industry, cinephiles and especially exhibitors in the rocky period of 2020-2021, and we’re not out of the woods just yet.
This is the harrowing context of Rafael Sbarge’s documentary, “Only in Theaters,” which is half celebration of the theatrical experience and half biography of the Laemmle family, who have been in the movie business as long as there’s been a movie business, and who currently run a chain of local Los Angeles arthouse theaters that bear their name.
Sbarge, an actor and filmmaker, started filming Greg Laemmle and his family in 2019, as Greg, the current head of the theater chain, started to explore a sale of their family business. Sbarge, who narrates the documentary, says he felt called as a filmmaker and movie-lover to capture this family’s remarkable story on film but admits that, as such, he didn’t know quite what the story would be as he was filming. It seems that even in the final product, Sbarge still doesn’t quite know what the story of “Only in Theaters” is or should be, despite his voice-over insistence to the contrary. The film, while well-intentioned and informative, is a somewhat unfocused piece.
On the one hand, you have the story of the Laemmles, a real American-Dream tale and all the more authentic for its bumps in the road. Carl Laemmle immigrated to the United States from Germany at the age of 17 in 1884, and after stumbling into a nickelodeon in 1906, started one of Chicago’s first motion-picture theaters. Later, he helped break up Edison’s monopoly on movies, started producing films, and opened Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Carl urged his nephews Kurt and Max to immigrate to the U.S. from Europe, and with Hitler on the rise, they made their way to Hollywood and started Laemmle Theaters in 1938, with their first theater in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Max’s son Robert joined the family business and expanded their chain throughout the Los Angeles area, and his son Greg now runs the show. One of Greg’s triplet sons, Gabriel, is also in the movie business.
It’s not just the history of the Laemmle family that proves compelling in “Only in Theaters,” but also the crisis that Greg faces with the pandemic shuttering his struggling theater chain. Just as he reaches a triumphant decision not to sell at the end of 2019, the pandemic hits, forcing him to reckon with what Laemmle Theaters means to him beyond carrying on the family tradition. Could there be some other calling for him in his life?
The first half of “Only in Theaters” is hampered by a scattershot focus, interspersing the introduction to the Laemmle family and their history with testimonials as to the influence of Laemmle Theaters on the film culture of Los Angeles. Critics, scholars, industry leaders and filmmakers, as well as current and former employees, speak to the importance of the arthouse chain in the city, as it screens indie films, hosts film festivals, and is a key destination for showcasing international cinema, thanks in large part to Max’s European sensibility. (He worked in the film industry in Paris before immigrating to the U.S.)
All of these interviews are heartfelt, and urgent, but without a governing throughline, these emphatic entreaties have a rather vague and repetitive affect. It doesn’t help that Sbarge’s narration keeps, well, barging in to tell us what the film is really about (though it never seems to be about what he says it’s about). Finally, Sbarge announces that the story is about the importance of the theatrical experience for filmmakers, the crowning glory at the end of the arduous process of making a film, and filmmakers such as Allison Anders, Nicole Holofcener and Ava DuVernay offer their memories and experiences of seeing a film they loved or of sharing a film with an audience. They’re anecdotes that any film fan will relate to and love, but to what storytelling end remains confounding.
“Only in Theaters” frequently frets about “the rise of streaming” but never fully explicates what that means with evidence or data; nor does it ever entertain a contrary stance, potentially about the access that streaming can offer to a diverse array of cinema for those who don’t have access to an arthouse theater. Gesturing at big arguments (there’s also a brief diversion into current political concerns) without much substance doesn’t much help Sbarge’s rather muddled argument about preserving the theatrical experience.
In the second half of the film, Sbarge finally starts to get deep and personal, following Greg as he attempts to steer his family business through the storm of the pandemic. He channels his emotions about the roller coaster of a tumultuous year through the film titles he changes on the marquee at the Laemmle Royal in Santa Monica. It’s in moments where Greg lets his guard down, or when his sons or his wife Tish start to open up and analyze him, that things start to get pretty interesting.
At this point, when “Only in Theaters” crystalizes around this person and his family, we finally uncover what the real story of this film has been all along: In fact, it’s not a film about how important theatrical exhibition is for filmmakers (though that is nice too). Rather, it’s an intimate portrait of a man burdened by legacy, navigating uncharted waters, not even sure that he wants to. The film finally gets to where it’s going, and you only wish it arrived a little bit sooner. Nevertheless, it could inspire movie lovers to buy a movie ticket to a local theater this weekend, and that, in itself, is worth it.
“Only in Theaters” opens in NYC theaters (only) Jan. 20 via The Film Collaborative.