• Film

Docs: Affecting “Only in Theaters” Ponders Future of Film Exhibition Via Legacy of Laemmles

There has been a Laemmle in the movie business literally almost since there has ever been a movie industry.

After quitting his job in his late 30s and buying up a series of nickelodeons before then transitioning into the film rental and distribution markets, Carl Laemmle challenged Thomas Edison’s monopoly on moving pictures, and in 1912 co-founded Universal Pictures. During a king-making tenure that would last almost a quarter century, Laemmle would name his son president of production at the studio, but also extend a helping hand to many family members abroad (as well as other immigrants) seeking a better life in the United States.


Director Raphael Sbarge’s poignant documentary Only in Theaters tells a downstream story flowing from these efforts — of the preeminent Los Angeles-based arthouse cinema chain, a beloved, family-run enterprise. It also cannily uses this singular tale as a sort of canary in the coal mine for the future of theatrical exhibition about thought-provoking, adult-minded fare in a world where streaming and franchise tentpole entertainment seem the twin pillars of the era. After all, if the city most synonymous with American moviemaking gives up on the communal arthouse filmgoing experience — watering the seeds that grow a mighty oak, as one interviewee puts it — what does that say about the future of cinema, and indeed American culture at large?

With grace and affability, Only in Theaters establishes the Laemmle’s as a family whose first spoken language may technically be English, but one who emotionally connects via a healthy, heady mixture of movie quotes. And, owing as much to their love for art, culture, and the global vision of film as to any connection to production, the family views exhibition — not incorrectly — as part of the extended language of cinema.

In 1938, Carl Laemmle’s first cousins, Kurt and Max, opened the original theater of what would become the premier arthouse chain in Los Angeles — establishing and, over the decades, re-dedicating itself to serving as a beachhead for big screen culture. Viewers get to bear witness to the chain’s commitment to quality independent filmmakers and the best of international cinema. (Amusingly, there’s also a quick nod to the unlikely, Laemmle-stamped cult success of The Room, with footage of Tommy Wiseau attempting to wrest a microphone from James Franco at the 2018 Golden Globes, after The Disaster Artist’s victory.)

The central figure in all this is Greg Laemmle, Max’s grandson, who finds himself juggling the considerable if the ineffable weight of legacy as modern economic realities force change and compromise (and possibly worse) upon him.

Still, Only in Theaters boasts an engaging and erudite roster of interviewees who add color and context to the story of the Laemmle chain. This includes critics Leonard Maltin and Kenneth Turan; well-regarded publicist Melody Korenbrot (who got her start working for Laemmle); Roger Christensen, the Laemmle Theaters general manager from 1979-2009; and the directors of several local mini festivals, like Vera Mijojlić and Vladek Juszkiewicz, for whom Laemmle’s venues are integral.

Several famous writers and directors also appear via Zoom. Cameron Crowe talks about his mother taking him to see the R-rated Carnal Knowledge, while Bruce Joel Rubin reminiscences about a screening of Wild Strawberries. Allison Anders, meanwhile, rhapsodizes about a viewing of Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water that she says connects directly to her becoming a filmmaker.

Of course, befitting a movie about family legacy, Only in Theaters also functions as a portrait of warm and loving domesticity. In addition to his father Robert, Greg’s wife Tish and adult sons Nadav, Ezra, and Gabriel feature prominently in the movie. And among a small clutch of other familial interviewees is his great-aunt Alyse, who is 106 by the time of the movie’s end.

The first 15 minutes or so of the film sketch out a bit of the history of the Laemmle family, as well as their theaters. The Laemmle chain would open with (and eventually contract back down to) a single Highland Park location, before a successful program of re-expansion, spearheaded by Robert, in the 1960s and ’70s. As New Hollywood cinema enjoyed its moment, a crop of young and up-and-coming filmmakers were incredibly influenced by Italian neorealism, the French New Wave, and Japanese art cinema. And in Los Angeles, where did they see these movies? At Laemmle venues, of course.

In the 1990s, the Sunset 5 was rightly regarded as one of the most buzz-worthy venues and proving grounds for independent awards contenders, second perhaps only to the Angelika Film Center in New York City. Laemmle locations in North Hollywood and Glendale would follow — though the former is presently slated for date-uncertain termination under plans for a seven-story apartment complex being developed by Grubb Properties.

After this set-up, about half the movie focuses on a potential sale, either in whole or part, of the Laemmle assets. It’s here that Only in Theaters establishes the successful groove of its two-track narrative, as Greg grapples with the friction inherent in operating a business that also clearly serves and fulfills a broader community purpose. “I don’t think he thinks of himself as a separate person,” says one family member, sympathetically.

The film’s final half-hour charts the unthinkable — the choppy waters of this already difficult reality merged with the bombshell onset of COVID, and the further havoc and devastation the latter would wreak on the exhibition sector. Here, through bi-weekly zooms with Sbarge, the audienc sees some of the physical manifestations of the stress Greg is experiencing, as, time after time, potential re-opening dates get inevitably postponed, and the pandemic grinds on. Eventually, Laemmle is forced to offload two properties (and put another one in escrow), and then sell the family’s condo and move to Seattle to live with family, working remotely while still trying to save money.

Thankfully, Only in Theaters isn’t fanciful enough to peddle easy solutions, or even clear skies on the horizon. Instead, as it winds to its conclusion, it arrives beautifully at a moment of reflection about a line from Bull Durham regarding the pursuit of perfection.

Following theatrical runs in Los Angeles and other cities, Only in Theaters is set to screen theatrically in Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, and Detroit, among other cities. For a full list of upcoming screenings, updated as venues and festival presentations are added, visit www.onlyintheaters.com/schedule/.