ShowEast 2017 Bingham Ray Spirit Award: Greg Laemmle, Laemmle Theatres

Laemmle Theatres dates back to 1938, when it was founded by Max and Kurt Laemmle. The circuit went on to be led by Robert Laemmle, before Greg became the third-generation owner of the California-based group. Currently operating 37 screens across eight locations in Los Angeles County, Laemmle is undergoing an expansion that will see it reach new communities in Southern California. Boxoffice caught up with Greg Laemmle ahead of ShowEast to talk about the circuit’s storied history and ongoing commitment to independent cinema.

Laemmle Theaters has always been a supporter of independent cinema. What’s the history behind that commitment?

When my grandfather and his brother started the circuit in 1938, a big part of their agenda was supporting European and foreign-language cinema. It was a neighborhood circuit, I won’t characterize it as anything different than that, and that’s just grown over time. So when people think, “Where is that foreign language film playing?” They’re going to look to us first. That’s grown as American independent cinema, both documentary and narrative feature work, have become more prevalent. We have an openness to working directly with filmmakers and smaller distributors.

How much has that changed in recent years as the major studios have focused on more high-concept and tentpole projects?

It hasn’t changed. If the studios are less diverse, then their affiliate divisions are more diverse. So I think there’s a lot of really good content out there, a lot of good films. It’s well supported. And in some respects, the success of the independent sector means we’ve become our own enemy, in that the major circuits are now interested in playing these films. They’re aware of the crossover potential for quote-unquote art films. They want to play these pictures. They have the capacity, in many cases, to go for it. I don’t think they necessarily do as good a job as an independent exhibitor would, but the willingness to play it is important.

It was a disappointing summer at the box office on the studio side. How did specialty films fare during the season?

We started off with a great year, La La Land being the most obvious example, but also Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight. There were a lot of terrific—both aesthetically and commercially successful—independent films, in many cases beyond our wildest expectations. But, like the studios, at least commercially it ended up being a very difficult spring and summer. It’s often the case that when those tentpole films aren’t working, there’s stuff aimed at a more adult audience that is working. This summer, that wasn’t necessarily the case. A lot of films did a lot less business than people hoped and expected that they would.

We’ve seen the studios be able to adjust and position their releases on a year-round schedule. How much of that slowdown in the spring and summer do you think is caused by art house titles being marketed in the September-January corridor?

There is a tendency to cram everything in the fall. Everybody thinks their film is an awards contender, so they have to be in that period. It causes some problems. There is a reality that there is a lot of room in the marketplace. There have been years where films are very successful in March and April, and certainly the summer with independent films. Not just successful commercially, but gaining the head of steam they need to even power right into the Oscars season. So yes, they’ve been released on ancillary when awards season comes around, but that doesn’t stop a Grand Budapest Hotel from being involved in the Oscars race.

Distributors are often aware of it. They know their film could have more breathing room and be a word-of-mouth success in the spring. Sometimes they just can’t convince producers to go in that period because of the focus on the fall awards season. It’s not uncommon to have very successful films in that post-Oscars period. It’s just a question of finding a film where you can convince everybody involved that this is the period where it should be.

I think of years where we’ve had Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone, Boyhood. They find a lot of success in that late-spring, early-summer window. That was missing this year.

We did a little bit with Maudie, which started in June and played all through the summer. It ended up being a nice little word-of-mouth success for Sony Classics. If Sally Hawkins wasn’t so terrific in The Shape of Water, the conversation would really be about how Maudie is the Oscar-worthy performance that we should be talking about. I hate to pick on Sony Classics, but Paris Can Wait also found some really great success commercially, playing through the spring.

So there were a few. Just, unfortunately, not as many as we might see. It didn’t match up nearly with 2016, for instance, when you had Love and Friendship and Hello, My Name Is Doris and The Lobster. You don’t get a great harvest every year. I think the independents are—if not as conscious as the studios about the year-round potential—they’re certainly aware of it. I hope that this year is an anomaly, and next year we’ll again see a lot more films aimed at adults. All indications are that older moviegoers are actually the most reliable.

What was your relationship with Bingham Ray like? 

We certainly worked with October Films. Bingham had moved toward the acquisition and marketing side, so I had less of an opportunity to work with him, actually buying film and conversing with him on a weekly basis about how things were going. But we definitely worked with Bingham and Jeff when they were starting up October, and continuing to work with Bingham as October grew and changed. A number of terrific conversations with him. So I’m happy that I got to start my career when people like Bingham were still actively involved. I was at the Art House Convergence with him when he passed.

As a third-generation exhibitor, how do you think your era in exhibition differs from that of previous generations? 

We like to watch what’s going on and see where the trends are. We believe that there’s still an audience that wants to see movies in the way that they’ve always seen movies in the past. Just regular moviegoing, not super high priced, not super luxurious. People are going to several movies a month, so price is important, convenience.

Do people like the amenities? Sure, there are people who like amenities. There are also people who like comfort, convenience, and cost with the traditional exhibition environment. So we’re not necessarily going to do dine-in. We’re not restaurateurs. Just like our customers know the difference between a good film and a bad film, they know the difference between a good meal and a bad meal.

So I think it’s great that there are all these different options for customers in the exhibition environment. I don’t know that there’s a right one. There’s a right one for every person.

How important is it for a circuit today to establish its own unique brand identity?

I think audiences appreciate that. It’s a shorthand for them, matching what your brand is and the type of exhibitor you are to the right area. Make sure that the demographic is present to support what you do and who you are. Seven screens is a big theater for us. So even if we’re in a zone where we’re not getting cleared, and we can play both Hollywood and independent, obviously we’re going to be picking and choosing our programming. It’s a very different environment from the 12- to 16-screen commercial theater, where curation becomes less of a factor. They have the capacity to play just about everything. That’s a great thing for a customer, because they know, “I’ll go and just about anything will be there.” That’s fine. But you come to a Laemmle theater, you have a shorthand knowledge, you know what’s going on.

What would you say is the current state of exhibition?

It’s a challenging time, maybe more so than ever before. But we continue to believe that people want to get out of the house and see a movie. We were sitting there in August talking like, “It’s over, it’s over!” I don’t know why it is positioned where it’s positioned, but there it is. People will come back. If you looked at the films that “underperformed” during the summer, you could see why. There was something missing in many of the pictures, from a quality standpoint. In this day and age, the public figures that out really fast.

By the same token, I think you saw when pictures did deliver something different and something of quality, that they overperformed: Dunkirk, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman. I wish we had more of our pictures on that same level in terms of overperformance. The audience supported those films, there just weren’t enough good ones to power us through what is supposed to be our peak period.

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