The Arthouse Experience

Posted August 28, 2008 in News

The Laemmle 5 Theater in Claremont has taken some hits in recent weeks for not being arty enough. Residents and moviegoers are disconcerted that the family-run chain—which hails itself an “arthouse” theatre, showing predominantly independent, foreign and low-budget titles—hasn’t been what the West Village development had in mind when it opened last year. 

But what the people of Claremont and the surrounding areas have to ask themselves becomes—is having run-of-the-mill titles instead of independently distributed cinema better than having no theater at all? Because such is the fate awaiting the Laemmle located at One Colorado in Old Town Pasadena. That landmark will close after its lease runs out this October, according to senior VP of Laemmle, Jay Riesbaum. One of the reasons cited being that it’s always been an under-performing theater.

Is all of this a harbinger of things to come in Claremont?

“Absolutely not,” says Bob Laemmle, owner of the theater chain. “Don’t draw any inference from the closing of One Colorado.”  

Laemmle, who spoke to the IE Weekly, emerged as a vociferous defender of the Claremont Laemmle and seemed stupefied that anyone would question whether or not it could succeed on its own terms, even while conceding the obvious. He pointed to the relative dearth of indie titles.

“The last six months have not been particularly strong for arthouse films. It’s a good option to play the Hollywood fare.” Laemmle recognizes, but is effusive in his appraisal of upcoming indie releases. “We have Bottle Shock, we have Elegy, we have Hamlet 2. We are doing very well.”

Laemmle reinforced any notion that Claremont could be next to close its doors by adding, “we own the property.” 

Nobody could have predicted that disposable income would become so limited through the extended budget-crunching season, at least not when Claremont Village Expansion was drawn up. But Laemmle 5 is carrying a burden unparalleled by other businesses in Claremont: it doesn’t need to draw a few customers to be successful—it needs to draw a lot of them. 

Rhino Record’s longtime owner Chuck Oken can sympathize. Oken opened Video Paradiso 15 years ago in response to a similar civic cry for an indie-film market. Stocked with a good deal of the video library he secured after the demise of Turpentine Cat—at that time the area’s only indie-video store—Oken recalls that he too was criticized for being at odds with expectation.

“The Claremont Courier said I didn’t stock enough mainstream movies,” he says with a laugh. Oken says he soon found out that, although playing nice with the indie crowd had its benefits aesthetically, from a practical standpoint it wouldn’t pay the bills. Soon enough Video Paradiso was stocking those mainstream films just to stay afloat, though the store has been successful at retaining an independent vibe.

Robin Young is the operations manager of The Press, a Village restaurant that has struggled with the ebb and flow of changing times since it opened 10 years ago. Young also worked at the Laemmle 5 for a brief period when it opened. She says what Laemmle is doing is inevitable. 

“They’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Young says. “They’re supposed to show indie movies but no one wants to see them.” Young adds that there’s a significant difference in profitable customer count between a place like The Press and the Laemmle. What constitutes a successful night at the Press—anywhere from 100 to 200 people coming for dinner, drinks and to watch live music—doesn’t cut it at the Laemmle, where the average customer spends considerably less on a ticket and a trip to the snack bar.

“The smallest theater they have there has 40 seats, the biggest is about 175 seats,” says Young. Doing the math, one can see how many people the Laemmle needs to buy tickets nightly to stay profitable—and therein lies the biggest challenge faced by the Laemmle 5. The Claremont Village is one of the most unique and successful downtown retail areas in Southern California because its prominent businesses are small and with loyal customer bases. Next to these models, the Laemmle’s arthouse roots seems ambitious.

And whether it’s showing Pineapple Express or I.O.U.S.A., Bob Laemmle has a message to the people in Claremont who might think that his Village theater will go the way of One Colorado. 

“We’re not going anywhere.”



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