Drive along Colorado Boulevard and within the space of a mile you’ll pass Laemmle Playhouse 7, Arclight, and Regency 6 — all part of small, independent theater chains that show blockbusters, second-run films, and the art-house fair that cinephiles love.
Now, the COVID-19 Pandemic has caused these institutions to fall on hard times.
On March 17, local theaters joined the large, national chain AMC in shutting down to comply with federal, state, county and local directives aimed at combating coronavirus. This followed an earlier order by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to shut down theaters and other public venues.
Greg Laemmle, president of the eponymous theater in Pasadena, along with several others throughout the Los Angeles area, supports the theater closures as a necessary measure to protect public health. Still, these efforts to flatten the curve have hit his chain, which has been in the family since World War II, pretty hard.
Laemmle says he’s furloughed up to 200 employees, including more than 20 at the Pasadena location. Despite this, the theater is “hemorrhaging” money, he said, with Laemmle telling KCRW 89.9-FM that they are losing between $20,000 and $30,000 a week.
It’s particularly painful in Pasadena, he said.
“Pasadena’s our most successful location,” he said in an interview last week . “We love being there. It represents so many things for us.”
The pandemic comes at a time when theaters are already facing stiff competition from streaming services, although Laemmle said attendance is relatively stable and believes cinemas can operate side by side with them. For the time being, the chain is moving forward with plans for new theaters in Santa Clarita and Azusa, with Laemmle saying it may be even more costly to stop at this point.
However, if aggressive social distancing measures continue, Laemmle fears the loss of the summer movie-going season could doom the chain, absent some sort of relief program. This means Memorial Day, the film season’s traditional starting date, could represent the edge of the cliff. Even before that, the furloughs could soon become permanent as he claims legal and financial obligations would necessitate such a measure.
“I will be joining my employees in an unpaid situation shortly,” Laemmle said.
Rank and file theater workers have had a tough go of it.
In addition to doing some seasonal work as a receptionist, 21-year-old Alana Gutierrez works part-time at the Regency Academy 6, which features second-run films and cheap ticket prices. Having worked there for three years, she is feeling the financial pain of the furlough.
“I’m not sure what we’re doing about rent, but I do pitch in for rent. My mom is also out of work, so I know that I’ll be pitching in from what I’ve managed to save,” she said. “I’m saving what I can and just really just not spending any money so that when I do need it, if I need it later for necessities, I have it.”
Some efforts to help theater workers are afoot. In New York a GoFundMe campaign has raised money to aid cinema employees impacted by the pandemic. Laemmle has previously encouraged patrons wishing to help the chain to buy gift cards.
In the meantime, Laemmle theaters is trying out new ways to bring in cash. They have partnered with Kino Marquee to offer streaming movies on the chain’s website.
“Any revenue is good revenue,” Laemmle said while acknowledging the program just started, thus making it hard to assess its success.
While careful to say that the economic consequences of such a move must be considered, Laemmle says a freeze on rents and mortgages would help. He cautions that the benefits of a theater bailout could end up only going to the big players like AMC and Regal. He is in favor of oversight to make sure that small chains like his would receive proper aid as well.
Gutierrez said within another month she could be in real financial trouble. If the theaters were to go out of business it would be a major hit for her, and no doubt hundreds of others like her all over the area.
“I would lose stable work,” she said. “If the theater was shut down from this I wouldn’t have a job. I’d have to look for a new job in a market where there probably aren’t going to be very many, I wouldn’t think. I’ve been at that job for three years. Its been the most stable employment I’ve had up to date.”