Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theaters
Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theaters

‘Only in Theaters’: Jewish family behind SoCal’s Laemmle Theaters share their story in new documentary

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A few years ago, Greg Laemmle began entertaining offers to sell his family’s arthouse theater business. The rise of video-on-demand services had put the future of Laemmle Theaters, a Los Angeles institution started in 1938 by Greg’s German-Jewish grandfather and great-uncle, in jeopardy. And that was before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the theaters to shut down for more than a year.

A new documentary, “Only in Theaters,” recounts the history of Greg’s family and the Laemmles’ role in bringing foreign-language films to the West Coast and fostering an independent filmmaking community. It also covers the business’ near collapse in 2020.

Directed by Raphael Sbarge, the film will be screened across Northern California this month and next, beginning tonight at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater followed by a screening on Saturday at Century 16 in Pleasant Hill as part of the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival. It will also run at theaters in San Jose, Berkeley, Sebastopol, San Rafael and St. Helena. Laemmle and Sbarge will attend several screenings and answer audience questions afterward. (View the full schedule.)

“The theatrical experience is really something that’s valuable and unique,” Laemmle told J. in a Zoom interview earlier this month from his home in Seattle, as his wife, Tish, made challah in the background. “As an industry, we’re facing challenges, maybe more especially the arthouse exhibition sector coming out of the pandemic. But this is something that we really should try to save.”

He described the documentary as “a call to action to audiences,” and pointed out that independent theaters across the country, including in the Bay Area, are struggling to survive. Many have already closed. “I’m an example of the challenges this business is facing throughout the country,” he said.

The Laemmles have worked in the film industry since its earliest days. Carl Laemmle co-founded Universal Pictures in 1912 and was instrumental in breaking the monopoly on film production and distribution held by Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company. (Edison was forced to dismantle his company following a 1917 Supreme Court decision.) “Carl was older and well ahead of most of the other moguls, when we think of Louis B. Mayer and Harry Warner of the Warner Brothers,” Greg said.

After Kristallnacht, brothers Kurt and Max Laemmle left Germany for the United States and eventually joined cousin Carl in Los Angeles. There they began buying theaters and showing films by international directors — Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Alain Renais — that could not be seen anywhere else on the West Coast.

Over the years, the Laemmle theaters became known for showing an eclectic mix of films and for hosting special screenings, such as a “Fiddler on the Roof” singalong on Christmas Eve that has proved popular with Jewish Angelinos. Greg told J. he has even faced charges of antisemitism for showing certain films in his theaters, including “Paradise Now,” a 2005 drama about two Palestinian friends who are recruited by a terrorist group to carry out a suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv.

Throughout “Only in Theaters,” prominent directors and critics reflect on the importance of having an arthouse theater in town. Ava DuVernay, who grew up in Compton, recounts seeing “Ruby in Paradise,” a 1993 drama starring Ashley Judd, at a Laemmle and being transformed by it.

“There are no movie theaters in a lot of parts of this county where a lot of Black and brown people live,” she says. “And the fact that there was a space that shared all kinds of films about people I never saw, and things I didn’t know, and filmmakers from different places — you know, Laemmle and those other arthouse cinemas were that for me.”

The Laemmles have collected famous showbiz friends over the years, but, as the documentary reveals, running independent theaters is by no means a glamorous business. The economics have fluctuated with the introduction of new technologies, from television to home video to streaming. During the pandemic, Greg, who took over as president of the business from his father, Robert, applied for government disaster loans and got one-tenth of what they needed, he said. Greg spends much of “Only in Theaters” with a pained look on his face. At one point, he asks, “How much sacrifice is required in pursuit of the thing that you love?” (The Laemmles ultimately sold three theaters but held onto the business.)

Asked by J. how he plans to entice audiences back to his theaters, Greg, who studied marine biology at UC Berkeley, used an aquatic metaphor.

“Environmental succession is this idea that when a coral reef is destroyed, or there’s a forest fire, they don’t come back the way they were on the eve of the destruction,” he explained. “They come back in steps and stages. We’re watching what has been a forest fire for our industry.”

He added, “We have to see how it regrows, but we know that it’s regrowing.”

“Only in Theaters” (1 hour, 34 minutes) will be screened in Berkeley, San Francisco, San Jose, San Rafael, Sebastopol and St. Helena. Check onlyintheaters.com/schedule for showtimes.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.