Indie Focus: Greg Laemmle of Laemmle Theatres

Courtesy Greg Laemmle

As the cinema industry begins to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, Boxoffice Pro and Spotlight Cinema Networks are partnering to profile movie theaters and influential industry figures from across the country and ask them to share their first-person accounts of bringing the movies back to the big screen.

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The name “Laemmle” is hugely significant in the movie world. Can you explain a bit about the history of Laemmle Theatres?

This circuit was started by my grandfather and his brother when they took over the operation of two neighborhood movie theaters in [L.A.’s] Highland Park. My grandfather’s brother had previously been running a theater in Lowell, Indiana, the Ritz Theater. They decided to go into business together and chose Los Angeles. They had gotten their start in the movie business working for their father’s first cousin, Carl Laemmle, who was the founder of Universal Studios and one of the titans of the industry from all the way back.

Something that caught my attention is Laemmle’s Sneak Preview Club, where your loyalty program members get to attend one-off screenings of smaller movies that you maybe want to test out. Can you talk a bit about that program?

We believe that word of mouth is still a powerful tool in terms of helping smaller, quality films find an audience. Films that are good films, well made, and that are going to appeal to an audience have that advantage even when other films have larger advertising budgets. We like to be able to give a little more attention to smaller films, to start generating some buzz in a way that can be more organic than just spending dollars.

[The program] grew out of frustration. There were several films that we thought were really great, but the competition is very fierce. If you don’t get your grosses in in the first three days, you may not have an opportunity to develop word of mouth. So many people are finding these films after the fact. So this was an idea of saying, let’s jump ahead. Let’s give this film a little extra visibility first, with a separate recruitment email that goes out to our full list. And then [loyal customers will have] an opportunity to screen it and talk about it.

The specialty market, particularly, is so crowded. Smaller films are competing against outfits like Searchlight Picture and Focus Features, which have major marketing budgets behind them.

Searchlight, Focus, Neon, A24, Sony Classics—they all make and distribute quality films. But there are smaller films that are equally worthy of an audience’s attention. First, they don’t have the dollars. And second, they may not have the marketing hook that comes from cast or director or genre. They need that extra visibility. The Sneak Preview Club is a way to generate that visibility and develop word of mouth.

We’re big believers that films should play the festival circuit so that they can start acquiring fans who will support the release of that film. Because some of these films will only have one week in the marketplace, we want to make sure that everybody that should see this film is aware that the film is playing. And ideally, if they see it in the first three days, then maybe it gets another week. That’s really how it works. We don’t determine which films hold over and get to play for a second and third and fourth week in the marketplace. That’s the audience.

I’ve seen so many great, smaller films at festivals, particularly international ones, where I was so excited to tell people about them but they just didn’t get North American distribution at all. Sometimes they don’t even show up on home video.

Yeah, they’re not acquired for distribution. The problem with the festival circuit is, it’s separated from the theatrical timeline. If you play a film festival in April but your film doesn’t open in that market till December, a lot of that momentum is gone. The challenge is, how do you keep that momentum going? The Sneak Preview Club and other promotional partners that distributors can work with really become important. We’d like to think that people talking about the film, people recommending the film, is going to generate more awareness and more ticket sales.

Something that connects with that in my mind—the sort of opening up of cinema accessibility—is Laemmle’s robust discount program. You have a discount program for seniors, a free popcorn day, and then also a discount day for students, which you don’t see chains do too often. What value does that bring to your circuit?

We’re big believers in regular moviegoing, not event moviegoing. We like to think that, before the pandemic, the typical Laemmle movie patron was seeing a movie a week, whereas the average American sees a movie a month, if that. You have to recognize that there’s a financial choice there. If people are seeing lots of movies, moviegoing needs to be less expensive. We try to encourage volume programs. If you’re coming on Friday or Saturday night to see the biggest film, you probably should expect to pay full price. But if you’re coming to see a smaller film, if you’re coming on Monday or Tuesday for a matinee, and so on and so forth, that’s where we want to give you the discount, because we have the added capacity at that time. And we know that if people are going to see lots of movies, it needs to be priced accordingly.

There’s a concern that younger people are not seeing movies, and it’s especially a concern in the [specialty market]. Where’s the next generation of art house moviegoers coming from? To not pay attention to the financial realities that younger people have to face in terms of lower wages and higher rents and costs growing elsewhere is just pointless.

What are some of the other things Laemmle Theatres does to draw in a younger demographic? How does that fit into your approach to programming?

If you’re trying to get more diverse audiences to see traditional art house films, that’s a worthy goal. But you’re also not meeting the audience where they want to be. There are certain films that are going to appeal to a younger audience, or certain films that are going to appeal to niche audiences that are not necessarily coming to see traditional art house films. You have to offer them something that they want to see to get them in the door, and then you can expose them to the concept of art house films, of foreign-language films. But you’ve got to meet the audience halfway. That comes about with price, and it comes about with programming. If you don’t program films that are going to appeal to a younger audience, you’re not doing outreach. You can try to reach them, but getting them to see something they don’t want to see, traditionally, is just a fool’s errand.

By the same token, trying to get the traditional art house audience to see something that they’re not going to enjoy, or something that is a little off their radar, that’s a fool’s errand as well. There are films for all kinds of audiences. Maybe the traditional art house audience does not want to see a really great horror film, or they may not want to see a film from a country or a region or a language that is not something that is traditionally on their radar. But there is an audience that wants to see those films, and you have to put it in the theater and give them a shot to see it.

Ultimately, it’s about making the films available, doing the best that you can to get the information about the release in front of the audience that is most likely to attend, and then hoping that there’s some crossover once you’ve achieved that immediate goal. You have to know where your audience is, and that’s in terms of both mind-space and geography. If we know that the Farsi-speaking community lives out in the San Fernando Valley around our Encino theater, playing a film from Iran in Pasadena is not helpful for that audience.

In a recent State of the Art House webinar we did with Spotlight Cinema Networks, Tori Baker of the Salt Lake Film Society spoke about the idea that the art house space can be seen as elitist gatekeepers of the indie film world, and that that’s not necessarily inviting to potential customers.

We deliberately try to reject the gatekeeper concept. I have films that I like. I have a personal set of tastes. There are films that I’m not necessarily going to be the primary audience for. But it’s not about my taste. On some level, even my determination of what’s good or not good is immaterial. You have to be very careful about seeing yourself as a curator or a gatekeeper. It’s about understanding what it is that the audience wants to see, or may want to see. And creating a place and an environment where everyone has an opportunity. One of the more transformative films that we—[laughs] transformative is probably the wrong word—I’m the guy who played The Room! [Tommy Wiseau’s infamous midnight movie classic had its premiere screenings at Laemmle Theatres’ Fairfax and Fallbrook locations, kicking off one of the most entertaining movie success stories of recent years.] One could argue that [The Room has] done very well for art houses around the country, because it brought in a nontraditional audience to see something outside of the mainstream, which is what we’re really all about. That was clearly a situation where the audience perceived something in a film, and if we didn’t give it an opportunity to be seen in [a theatrical environment], the whole thing doesn’t happen.

If The Room had just dropped onto a streaming platform, it wouldn’t have become the phenomenon that it did.

Right. Now, I’m not saying that I should have played The Room instead of some really great French film, [for example]! But I should find room for The Room. And that’s where expanding your programming becomes important. Yes, the traditional art house audience may not come out after 10 p.m. for a movie. But other audiences will! And if you program regularly for that audience, in that part of the day, in a part of town where midnight shows will do well—not everything has to be Rocky Horror. You can program Rocky Horror on Friday night and do something else Saturday night. There are many instances—obviously, The Room is the most successful example—of things that we’ve been able to do with midnight shows, with late shows, things that we can do on Saturday and Sunday mornings before we open for our regular programming, things that you can do on midweek evenings that create more vibrancy and more life.

With Indie Focus, we try to be more forward-looking rather than dwelling on the shutdown era. But I do want to ask: What’s been your experience with virtual cinema, and what place does it have for Laemmle Theatres moving forward

The experience with virtual cinema was great because it really exposed how tied together the exhibition market and the distribution market are. Within 10 days of shutting down, we had launched virtual cinema. Now, we didn’t launch it. Distributors figured out, we’re going to put up these platforms, and we’re going to modify them so that we can track audiences coming from each exhibitor, and we’re going to find a way to share. They wanted to help keep us alive. They wanted to help us maintain a connection. And they also recognized that we provided a service for them, because if they’re just putting their films out on VOD platforms, the audience isn’t going to find these smaller films.

Thanks to Kino Lorber, thanks to Film Movement, thanks to a number of other smaller distributors, we were able to present films to our audience through transactional VOD, which is ultimately what virtual cinema is. Our audiences were having a little bit of trouble because each [distributor platform] was a little bit different. After a few months, when we realized the pandemic was not ending anytime soon, we launched a proprietary platform. That was in early October of 2020.

Even though we reopened in April of 2021, we’re still keeping the virtual platform going. The numbers are way off from where they were at the beginning of the pandemic, but it still provides an opportunity for people who are not comfortable coming out to the movie theater in this environment to still be able to see some of these films. What is the future of virtual cinema? I’m not sure. But is there a role for these art house exhibitors to play with an ancillary platform? I think the answer is yes. Exactly what that is, is to be determined.

We have never had the attitude that ancillary is an enemy of theatrical. We understand that we exist in a competitive relationship in terms of where people are going to see films. But ultimately, the fact that distributors and producers can see a longer cycle of revenue for their films means that more films are made, means that more good films are made, and means more good films are going to be given an opportunity to be seen in movie theaters. I firmly believe that we are, at some level, providing a completely different experience from seeing a film on your TV or whatever platform you use to see it at home. [At a theater], big screen, great sound, smaller screen, not-so-great sound, doesn’t matter. You’re out of your house. You’re focused on the film in a way that you can’t be at home.

Theaters in L.A. and New York opened a lot later than theaters in the rest of the country. And the year’s more high-profile specialty films only started coming out closer to the end of the year, which is of course normal. Given that, what has the recovery process been like for Laemmle? Where are you compared to where you were in 2019?

We’re well below pre-pandemic box office levels. Some theaters are doing better than others, and in part that’s about the age of the audience that typically supports those locations. Films in general that are appealing to a younger audience are having an easier time achieving a higher percentage of box office. The older audience is still very much on the fence. We were seeing some good momentum from April to May to June. July was off to a really good start. And then the Delta surge just really kicked our ass.

Everybody knew that vaccines were not 100 percent effective, but the idea of breakthrough infections scared a lot of people. And lost in the messaging was the fact that, yes, you might get a breakthrough infection, but you’re not likely to be hospitalized or not likely to have a severe case. People did not want to get infected in any way, shape, or form. And anybody who felt that they were more susceptible, even if they were vaccinated, even if they’re boosted at this point, they’re on the sidelines.

I was really hoping that the Delta surge … as we hit October, November would be less of a factor in the United States. But the Omnicron variant has again thrown people. But, look, we have a long Oscar season this year. The awards are not till March. I’m hopeful that even as some of these films start going out on the ancillary platforms, we can get to a place where people can put the risk of Covid on an appropriate level. This is no more dangerous than driving to the theater. Sitting in the theater and watching the movie is maybe less dangerous than actually driving to the theater. If we can A) get that risk to a lower level and B) mentally start accepting where it’s at, the audience will start coming back. We’re going to have to accept that right now we’re still fighting an uphill battle.

There are people who still don’t know that their movie theaters are open. … It’s going to take time to reacquire an audience, to reacquaint them with moviegoing. And you have to be careful. How much effort do we put into outreach during this environment? Do we need to save our ammo until the coast is clear? We’re open right now, and we’re catering to an audience that is ready to come out. But that real effort to reacquire that audience that has some reasonable concern about coming out—maybe we just need to wait till this whole thing is past us. It’s kind of like the riptide concept. If a riptide is carrying out to sea, the last thing you want to do is swim against the tide. Let it take you where it’s going to take you. Eventually you’ll get out of that riptide and you can move to the side and get back to where you need to be. But save your energy until you can have an impact. Swimming against the stream isn’t going to get you anything. Except tired!

Laemmle Theatres has been around since 1938. You have a very strong brand, very strong community connections. Given that, what goes into consideration for you when it comes to choosing an in-theater advertising partner?

The traditional art house audience, in many respects—their demographics, where they fit financially into the world—are a desirable audience, and they’re heavily marketed to. What you need to have is advertisers who respect the audience, and therefore you need an agency that respects the audience. For us, what’s really important is that we don’t want to put inappropriate ads in front of an audience. It makes it much easier when the company that’s coordinating that effort doesn’t bring crap to me. For me to reject! The other thing is, [with Spotlight] I have the right to approve an ad. If I feel like I’m really flush this week and I don’t need the money, I want to be able to say no to an inappropriate ad. Whether I do or not, I certainly want the right to say no to an inappropriate ad.

It’s very helpful that the stuff that is brought to me is by and large appropriate for my audience. That the length of the program is respectful of where my audience is and doesn’t tax them with a 20-minute pre-show advertising reel. That the interstitial stuff—trivia questions and news bits and so forth—is respectful of the audience. Spotlight was formed from the very beginning with the idea of recognizing that—this is a different audience, and we’re going to bring stuff to them that’s appropriate. It started with that, and it continues to stay true to that. And as long as it stays true to that, it’s going to be a welcome partner in the art house field.

Courtesy Greg Laemmle

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