Only in Theaters – Laemmle
Greg Laemmle is CEO of the Laemmle Theaters, a Southern California movie theater chain beloved by those who value independent, foreign and art house cinema. Founded in 1938 by two European immigrants escaping World War II-siblings Kurt and Max Laemmle who were cousins of Hollywood movie mogul Carl Laemmle – Laemmle Theatres eventually passed down to Max’s son, Robert, who ran the business until his son, Greg, took over.
Filmmaker Raphael Sbarge captures that family history in his new documentary, “Only in Theaters.”
“It is a movie about a family, a Jewish immigrant family, who have had an outsize influence on the movie business,” Sbarge said in a recent interview.
Sbarge’s film interweaves Laemmle family history with challenges facing the company due to changing movie-going habits as well as a pandemic that shudders theaters for 13 months. Facing forces beyond his control, Greg is determined to see his third-generation family business survive.
Sbarge, an independent director and producer, has been a working actor for more than five decades. He was drawn to making a film about the Laemmle family after visiting the Laemmle Royal in West L.A., coming upon a wall in the theater lobby covered in framed photographs of the Laemmles.
“Wow, there’s really a story here,” Sbarge recalled thinking at the time. “There’s an incredible legacy story here. There’s been a Laemmle in the movie business ever since there was a movie business.”
Sbarge began the project before the pandemic and completed it last year. His film features intimate interviews and moments with Greg and his wife, Tish, including showing them seated around the Shabbat table with their three sons in their Los Angeles home, where a giant art piece reading, “Don’t Roll on Shabbos,” hangs on the wall. In another scene, Tish says she thinks Greg would have made a great rabbi.
Kurt Laemmle’s widow, centenarian Alyse Laemmle, also features prominently in the film, sharing her and Kurt’s moving love story. An array of filmmakers, critics and others—including directors Ava DuVernay, Cameron Crowe and Nicole Holofcenter, journalist Kenneth Turan, and historian Leonard Maltin—show up to make the case for the sacredness of the movie-going experience as well as the vital role the Laemmle plays introducing audiences to films they’d likely not otherwise see.
“Only in Theaters” premiered in March at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. As of press time, there was no theatrical release planned for the film, though Sbarge is hoping as many people as possible see the film, which is clearly a labor of love—a film for movie-people, by movie-people.
Before a recent screening, Sbarge and Laemmle participated in a phone interview about the documentary. They also chatted about the changing nature of the movie business and what the future has in store for the Laemmle Theaters. Several years from now, will Los Angeles Jews still be gathering on Christmas Eve at Laemmle Theaters to sing along with “Fiddler on the Roof?”
The following is an edited version of the conversation.
JLiving: How did this documentary project come into being?
Raphael: I love Greg, I love Greg because the family is, and has been for so long, so dedicated to the art of films and filmmaking. I reached out to Greg one day and said, ‘Listen, has anyone ever thought about doing a documentary about your family?’ And I guess there were quite a few suitors, but not one had followed through. And I did. And here we are.
Greg: A number of people over the years have said, ‘Gee, somebody should make a film about your family and the business.’ Raphael was the first person who really came in and said, ‘I want to do it, and I’m prepared to do it.’ And that was a meaningful difference.
JLiving: What is the status of Laemmle Theatres? Are the theaters open?
Greg: Yes, we shut down in March 2020, and we reopened in April 2021. We opened six theaters initially and then a seventh theater a week later, and then the eighth and final remaining theater was opened over Memorial Day weekend in May 2021.
JLiving: How do you feel about the movie business these days?
Greg: Well, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re seeing very good, strong signs on the commercial side of things, both in response to films like “Spiderman: No Way Home,” and now “The Batman.” So there’s clearly an audience returning to commercial movies. I’m optimistic that most of the major studios that, having experimented in some way, shape or form with simultaneous day-and-date release in theaters and on VOD [Video on demand] are now making a stronger commitment to providing a theatrical window, an exclusive theatrical window for their films, moving into 2022. But the art house audience is slower in returning. They’re at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, at least that older audience is, and they’re very cautious.
JLiving: Raphael, how much input did Greg give during the making of the documentary?
Raphael: I am an independent director and producer, and I approached Greg as the subject of this. Greg has not only not been involved creatively in this, but Greg went so far as to not even see the film until it premiered. As Greg said, he had a desire to stay out of the editorial process and, in pure journalistic integrity, allow the film to find its own voice. He could not have been kinder and more open to the process.
JLiving: The film is called “Only in Theaters.” Why?
Raphael: “Only in Theaters” seemed like the perfect title. It’s an opportunity to speak to the theme of the movie, which is really about the theaters, the importance of the theaters, what the theaters mean, what they do to the quality of our lives, how they affect the actual experience of a movie. Sometimes people think big movies are the only movies you should see onscreen, but the smaller movies, the intimate movies, are the ones that actually have the most impact when they’re on bigger screens. It’s a familiar term, but it actually speaks directly to the theme at the core of the story.
JLiving: What does life look like for Laemmle Theatres going forward?
Greg: We will be leaner and meaner. As audiences come back, as we begin to see the shape and the form of the theatrical environment, we plan to re-expand. It mirrors an experience my grandfather [Laemmle Theaters co-founder Max Laemmle] went through, which is described in the film, when Laemmle Theatres went from six screens into the post-World War II period to a single screen, and that was because of the advent of television. That technological chain had an impact on the business but it did not kill the business. And ultimately, the business was able to re-expand and grow into something healthier than it had been.
Our hope, our belief, is we survive and come back from this experience as well.
JLiving: We can’t have an interview in our Passover issue without asking you – what are your favorite Passover movies?
I love the seder scene from Woody Allen’s CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, a complex work looking at the relationship between piety, philosophy, and the presence of immorality (and outright evil) in our midst.
Speaking of family and generational change, no Passover is complete without the short documentary GEFILTE FISH by Karen Silverstein.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS has to be on the list. So let it be written, so let it be done!
I also love STREIT’S: MATZO AND THE AMERICAN DREAM. A really good doc about another family business.
And since Passover is all about the possibility of redemption and the presence of miracles in our lives, I recommend a look at Pierre Sauvage’s WEAPONS OF THE SPIRIT, an uplifting look at the French village of Le Chambon and their collective effort to hide and save Jews fleeing the Nazi occupiers and their complicit Vichy accomplices.