It felt like a death. Not the weird emotional mix of a friend’s death but the disorienting, twisting reality of an unexpected celebrity death. I saw the report shortly after it popped up on social media. I needed to share it to make it real and so immediately texted a friend:
ArcLight theaters are permanently closed.
Say it ain’t so! And not the Dome???
All of them.
There was a short pause as my friend’s reality warped in alignment with mine and then:
Now I am getting that 100” Screen!
The actual news was ever so slightly different. The Decurion Corporation, which owned both the Pacific Theatres and ArcLight Cinema chains, was pulling the plug on the whole lot of them. Now, Pacific Theatres are nice enough venues and often found in upscale LA locations like the Disney-esque outdoor malls of The Grove and The Americana. But I didn’t mention those in my text – nor did most Angeleno cinephiles judging by their Twitter activity. That’s because the Pacific Theatres were, well, theaters, nice as they were.
The ArcLight venues, on the other hand, were an experience. Most were located in Los Angeles and three, in particular, were important to me. There was the Sherman Oaks location where my Valley friends and I would meet in a more civilized, quieter portion of the famous Galleria mall, up several stories worth of escalators above the Cheesecake-Factory-eating rabble. There was the Pasadena location, close to me, where I’d be able to spontaneously decide to see a late-night screening, making this site seem like my private home theater. And then there was the Hollywood location; ground zero of the movie industry. With its huge, adjacent parking structure (easy parking a rarity in this part of town), a collection of surrounding high quality but affordable eateries, and Amoeba Records (which was) less than half a block away to allow for a little old-school music browsing, the ArcLight Hollywood’s 15 theaters were a place not just to see a film but to build a whole social outing around it.
And this theater complex was right next to the crown jewel of the ArcLight operation itself; the holy of holies; the Cinerama Dome. The Dome had been there since 1963, built during the heyday of geodesic domes, and it got a good reboot when it joined the ArcLight chain in 2002. The Dome is iconic in a city where so much is transient. It is an immense space of 800 seats, first-rate projection equipment ranging from 70 mm film to modern digital, superb acoustics, and a gargantuan curved screen measuring 86 feet wide and 32 feet high.
Little wonder the Cinerama Dome was a favorite place for premiering the showiest of shows that the studios had to offer. I was fortunate to catch a 70 mm print of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the 50th anniversary of its release. I had seen the film multiple times on a full-size screen but with this print, in this theater, it was a brand new sensory adventure. I was enveloped in a visio-sonic bubble where the outside world no longer existed. The vacuum of space never felt so rich and full. It’s doubtful the experience could be replicated in more ordinary theaters. For a film-goer, the Cinerama Dome is the happiest place on Earth.
Yet, oddly, I don’t fret for the future of the Dome. It was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1998. During its 2002 renovation, high-minded people insisted on keeping its original design and prevented it from getting multiplex’ed. It has a well-deserved place in Hollywood lore, similar to Grauman’s Chinese Theater just down the street and the Steven J. Ross Theater on the Warner Bros. lot. It even made an appearance in Tarantino’s homage to Tinseltown, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. As a stand-alone structure, it can be bought as a stand-alone venue – and it likely will.
More troubling are the “regular” ArcLight theaters for, as I said, a screening in them was still an experience. The pre-sold assigned seating. The real coffee in the lobby café. The properly buttered popcorn. The wide, comfortable seats. The lack of commercials before the trailers. That pre-trailer shadow slide on the screen – I could never quite figure out what it represented. The limited number of trailers. The personal announcement by a staff member (with a name) before the show.
Sure, the seats were beginning to look threadbare. But you knew the projector bulb would be 100% bright, the on-screen framing and focus perfect, and the sound properly balanced. The staff would even remind you that the sound might seem a little louder during the few trailers shown but it would be at correct levels when the feature began.
You were guaranteed that the film would be shown as its creators intended.
And you trusted that guarantee because the ArcLight employees all seemed to be cinephiles themselves. They cared about your film experience because they knew how they wanted to experience it themselves.
And those in the audience? The slightly higher ticket prices discouraged those who would engage films as if watching living-room television. Patrons were first-rate, especially at the ArcLight Hollywood where much of the audience was likely industry. They didn’t talk during the show. They didn’t light up their cell phones. Most stayed through the credits to see who worked on the film. And if anyone was disruptive in any way, the staff – those friendly film fanatics – would take care of the problem rapidly.
Maybe you can find that in some multiplex surrounded by the Gap, Foot Locker, and Lenscrafters. But I haven’t. It would be like discovering a 3-star Michelin restaurant in a suburban strip mall.
Hence the terror in the City of Angels. What are we going to do?
This shock was made all the worse because the plug was pulled suddenly, without warning. Like cancelling a highly rated show during hiatus. There’s no closure, no shared processing or public last hurrah.
In September 2020, I received an email from the ArcLight which began:
ArcLight Cinemas remain committed as ever to providing a meaningful communal movie-going experience. Given the complexity of the current situation, we will not reopen until movie theaters are legally authorized to do so and conditions stabilize.
The email went on to assure me that my ArcLight membership would be extended to account for the time lost since the theaters had shut down the previous March. And I continued to receive emails about complimentary drive-in screenings, the most recent dated February 26 for Coming 2 America.
And then there was the announcement a week ago that California considered the Covid emergency a thing of the past and that the State would fully open on June 15. True, the scientist in me would be waiting just a little longer (like a few months) before I would publicly recreate indoors but overall the unprecedented upheaval by the Covid pandemic seemed to be finally, at last, over. Los Angeles was looking to get back into business and its business is film-making.
So the announcement of ArcLight closure this week came just like that one last surprise kill at the end of a good slasher film.
We weren’t expecting it. And it stunned us.
Only what we were witnessing was not on a screen. It was real life. And that queasy feeling in our stomachs hasn’t gone away. If Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States and the epicenter of the world’s entertainment industry, cannot support quality viewing rooms what does that say about the future of the film experience as we know it? Will the feature be reduced from its glorious history of pictures on immense reflective screens surrounded by the collective vibe of appreciative patrons to images delivered on glowing 100 (or 5) inch displays and viewed mostly in headsetted solitude?
And that is the reason for the panic in the City. Is the ArcLight closure a signal that an over hundred-year art form is dying and we are trending to the more immersive, but isolating, solo storytelling experience of virtual reality?
I dunno. Nobody does. Yet.
Still, does anyone know if there is an extra Oscar “In Memoriam” slot this year?
Originally published April 15, 2021 in Script Magazine.