Shortly we will know if the Chinese will just be a tourist façade, an actual operating theatre or Studio 54 for the new millennium (I vomited a little in my mouth upon typing that.) Call me an idealist, but I don’t think normal exhibition is doomed to fail at the Chinese, it’s just been so mangled by Mann’s unwillingness to change, financial inability and woeful mismanagement when the Arclight became the standard by which Los Angeles locales judge their cinema going experience.
So as a public service act to those that will be operating the (I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating) historical landmark and most famous theatre in the world, let me offer five suggestions/ways to reinvigorate exhibition at the theatre. Some of these may come across as pie-in-the-sky dreams of a cinephile, but fuck it; these are pie-in-the-sky dreams of a cinephile.
1.) Focus on Exclusive Premiere Engagements
Did you know before those mall and shopping center based theatres proliferated, you know the theatres that we started going to instead of prestigious one screen theatres that required a bit more of an effort to make it to and now complain ruined the movie going experience with all the commercials and people talking and texting throughout the feature but fail to see the irony of our culpability in (whoa, sorry that went somewhere unexpected…no offense, well at least not too much offense I hope), anyway before those aforementioned multiplexes became the norm, a film would generally open in only one or two theatres in a town. In Los Angeles that meant that say, Star Wars, would open on one screen in Westwood (the AVCO) and one screen in Los Angeles proper (the Chinese). And if you wanted to see Star Wars, well you had to drive or take the bus and wait in line. I remember when I was six years old and E.T. was only playing at the Century 22 in San Jose (it may have been on two screens there) and my parents took me, and all the way in the car I was like “la la la I am going to see E.T. in your face!” only to get to the theatre to discover, gasp, the film was completely sold out for the entire day and I would not be seeing E.T. la la la. Obviously it was crushing, and while I am not a parent yet, I imagine that’s a pretty hard situation to deal with. But when I finally did see E.T., guess what, it was even more special and magical. Nowadays E.T. would open on 4,000 screens and be playing every hour on the hour so you could catch a show between getting your car’s oil changed and enjoying a mocha latte Frappuccino. Also thanks to the internet we’d know what E.T. looked like, have the whole fucking film spoiled a week before it opens by Jeffrey Wells and already form our opinion based on the trailer we watched repeatedly on iTunes, but that’s beside the point. You could pretty much draw a straight line that depicts the dip in quality of mainstream blockbuster film to the expansive openings of said film. Why would there be any interest in making say Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (to cite a recent example I have not seen nor desire to see but judging from reliable sources is a piece of shit) be any good when it makes seventy percent of its gross opening weekend before word of mouth spreads.
Anyway, I am going to be a realist and say that we will never see mainstream blockbuster films open at only one theatre in a given city at a given time ever again. However, stuff like Terrence Malick’s Palm D’or winning Tree of Life which opens exclusively at (well, I’ll be) the Arclight this weekend, and other arthouse, Academy Award hopefuls, independent buzz films and auteur driven curios open to exclusive engagements in Los Angeles and New York all the time. Tree of Life this week and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris last week being two prime recent examples. And, hell there’s nothing an Angeleno likes better than bragging about seeing a film before anyone else. After I saw an exclusive preview of There Will Be Blood, I would pick up random telephone books for Midwest cities and call strangers and say “hey man, I don’t know you but have you seen the new PT Anderson film, its freaking amazing! What? It’s not opening till the end of January and you’re completely snowed inside anyhow. Sucker!” Hell, I even do it for films I don’t catch until later in their runs, like when I was up for Christmas and my wife’s aunt said they just saw The Fighter which had opened there that weekend, and I replied “oh that’s been playing in LA for weeks now”, in fairness though people in the Bay Area like to brag about how superior they are to Los Angeles (and in further fairness, I lived in the bay area for 26 years). But back to my point, Midnight in Paris had a huge opening weekend per screen average, and I am guessing Tree of Life will probably have the same. I would imagine the same people who like to be the first to see these types of films will be just as open to going to see them at the Chinese as they are at the Arclight. It would give the theatre a bit of an identity and I am sure be more fortuitous than the feature currently playing there, Jumping the Broom…now in its fourth fucking week!
2.) Fuck Competition, Wave Territorial Rights
In all likelihood, this would probably be the most likely option. It’s also the one I am least in favor of, but if it will save the Chinese, I’ll deal. First though, if you will pardon, let me start this with another personal history lesson. In 1994, when I was a freshman in college, I began working for a movie theatre, the United Artist Metro Center 6 (Colma represent!). Because of territorial rights we could only play films there were not playing at any other theatre in a certain mile radius to our theatre. That meant the other three theatres in this radius: the Century Plaza 8, a two plex General Cinemas theatre and another six plex, the Serramonte 6, could not have the same film playing at the other’s theatre. So basically in this area you would have 22 screens and with the exception of big releases that opened on multiple screens each theatre had to program different films for each screen. The Serramonte theatre showed second run fare, and the General Cinemas seem to exclusively play films from either Paramount or Columbia studios, while the UA and the Century divided the rest of the films. This resulted in, primarily during the spring and fall when there wasn’t a new Batman or Die Hard film opening, theatres taking fliers on more interesting programming. In the span of my working there, either the Century 8 or Metro 6 would play such usually arthouse/independent theatre regulated fare as Before Sunrise, Shallow Grave, Death and the Maiden and Trainspotting. Today all four of those theatres are closed, demolished or refurbished into other business. In their stead is one newer Century theatre with twenty screens. That’s two less screens than fifteen years ago. Interested in what’s playing on those twenty screens today? The Hangover 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates 4, Bridesmaids, Thor, Fast Five, Rio and with one or two showings each: Priest and Something Borrowed. That’s a total of nine films, all of which are wide releases produced by major conglomerates.
A few years ago Warner Brothers actually experimented with opening Terminator: Salvation both at the Chinese and the Arclight (maybe even the Cinerama Dome too). The main issue is that while there is a six screen multiplex attached with the Chinese, it does a fraction of the business that the Arclight with its reserved seating, ample parking and no talking rule enforcement. And since Joe Blow Big Studio wants to maximize profits, it’s more financially rewarding to open a film on three screens at the Arclight, then at the Chinese and two of their multiplex screens (full disclosure: I have never been to the current incarnation of the multiplex associated with the Chinese). But if say Warner allowed The Hangover part II to open at both the Chinese and the Arclight, it will be further on the way to global domination than they already are. Now obviously less choice is bad for the consumer (or at least this consumer), and I would hope that since they are one of only three (the other being the Disney film exclusively running El Capitan) single screens remaining in the area that the Cinerama Dome and Chinese would not be showing the same film at the same time, because that would blow. But perhaps using this weekend’s two big releases: The Hangover II could open at the Chinese and three screens at the Arclight while Kung Fu Panda 2 could play at the Cinerama Dome.
3.) Turner Classic Movies Cinemas
Okay, I am about to propose that the Chinese becomes a repertory theatre, before you scoff too much big business executives, please hear me out (I do realize they’re not reading this, but hey…) In April and May of the last two years Turner Classic Movies has operated a film festival of classic cinema with the Chinese being home base for some prestigious event screenings such as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with a Q and A with Tucco himself, Eli Wallach, and Reds with Alec Baldwin moderating a discussion with Warren Beatty. Obviously the logistics of programming a festival like atmosphere for a theatre year round would be damn near impossible. However, what if, like the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, they show one classic film a week. This would be a great way to garner interest in film preservation, good synergy for Turner Classics and would restore some of the classic luster of the Chinese’s heyday. But wait, there’s more! My proposal to actually make this thing financially lucrative is to have a Friday or Saturday night premiere gala (where I guess conceivably you could charge higher admission) with a director, star or someone associated with the film in attendance for a pre or post-show discussion. And since the print's there, just show it for the rest of the week at a lower pricing rate for those who just want to watch the film. For example, if they showed The Godfather, perhaps Friday and Saturday night they could have Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino or James Caan doing an intro and discussion for an hour or so, with special premium pricing for $25 or something and then just show the Godfather for the rest of the week without the hullabaloo for like $10 Sunday through Thursday.
4.) Let the American Cinematheque Program the Theatre
The non-profit American Cinematheque has formed a strong niche with a focus on star and director driven special programming and annual events like their several weeks long Film Noir fest in April (I only attended once this year, for the Max Ophuls directed Caught, but the number of attendees for a special guestless performance on a Wednesday night was endearing) while saving two gems of theatres in the process: The Egyptian in Hollywood which had been twinned and abandoned, and the Aero in Santa Monica which was floundering. Since the Egyptian and the Chinese are in such proximity to one another, it’s very likely a difficult task to keep both theatres flourishing, but if anyone can do it, I am sure the American Cinematheque can.
5.) Alamo Drafthouse: Los Angeles
While I’ve never been to Austin, or Texas for that matter, when I finally do venture into the Lone Star state the first landmark that I hope to visit is not the actual Alamo (though I hear they have a lovely basement), Cowboy Stadium or the Houston Space Center, but the famous Alamo Drafthouse, brainchild of one Tim League. A theatre/restaurant created by and employed by movie lovers with a fiercely independent and unique sensibility which includes screenings of modern films of all stripes, specialty screenings with directors/actors in attendance (and a summer series off-shoot screening films in the locations they were shot, for example Close Encounters of the Third Kind at Devil’s Tower), weekly repertory screenings (Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays) and the annual Fantastic Fest: a film festival dedicated to genre and cult cinema, League has, with an eye towards community, successfully created a brand with loyalty and worldwide recognition (for naught was League given a special Thank You at the end of Grindhouse), and proved that with some fresh ideas and attention to quality, movie exhibition can still be a successful and rewarding experience for theatre operators and cinema goers in our modern online streaming era. And what’s more, word is out that he’s interested in bringing the Alamo to Southern California. Is there a location more appropriate and in need of him than the Chinese?