October 21, 2018

Laemmle family to be honored at film festival

The Laemmle Theatre chain has been bringing art-house films to the Los Angeles area since 1938. To honor its commitment to independent cinema, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival (LAJFF) is paying tribute to the company at the festival’s opening night gala May 18 at the Saban Theatre.

“They still run a mom-and-pop family business, yet they’re competing with the corporate theaters,” said Hilary Helstein, the festival’s director. “It’s impressive, and they deserve to be recognized for what they’ve been able to give to the L.A. community.”

The patriarch of the family of cinephiles was Jewish-German-born Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, one of the original major Hollywood movie studios. In 1938, his nephew Max Laemmle left Paris, where he had been running Universal’s distribution office, and came to Los Angeles. Max’s brother Kurt had been working for Universal in Chicago while running a theater in Indiana. The siblings leased two small neighborhood theaters in Highland Park, where they showed films two or three weeks after they’d premiered in larger theaters. They later acquired the Los Feliz Theater in 1946.

When television came along, many theaters across the country closed, and it was no different for the Laemmles. After owning six theaters, Kurt Laemmle left the business and Max ran just the Los Feliz Theater. 

But in the 1960s, Max and his son Bob invested in single-screen theaters to show art-house films. The Laemmles opened theaters in Pasadena, West L.A. and Westwood, and later took over operations of the Music Hall and Fine Arts theaters in Beverly Hills. Locations in Santa Monica and Encino opened in the 1970s.

Among the strategies Max and Bob Laemmle, and Max’s brother-in-law, George Reese, pioneered was creating festivals to show foreign films, from Italian neo-realist to French New Wave. They also rented out the theaters for weekend classes, opera screenings and concerts.

Bob Laemmle eventually took over the company, and his son Gregory Laemmle took his place as head of the family business in 2004. His first job was while he was in high school, selling popcorn and changing the marquee at the family’s Monica Film Center in Santa Monica. He currently serves as president of the chain and selects the films to be screened.

“There’s not a certain type of film that I believe in more than another,” Laemmle said. “It’s the importance of film, both for the people watching it and for the filmmakers.”

The screens also are for rent. Laemmle allows filmmakers to pay to screen their movies, sometimes to an empty theater, in order to qualify them for Academy Award consideration.

“I think in many respects, the bigger service to filmmakers is that your film isn’t going to get reviewed unless it plays a one-week engagement,” Laemmle said, “In many cases, for a first-time filmmaker whose film, for whatever reason, didn’t get picked up by a distributor, the opportunity to at least have your film play and be judged by the critical community and get those potentially good reviews, that could be amazingly important for someone’s career. Because the trick isn’t always making your first film. The trick is being able to make your second and third and fourth film.”

For example, Laemmle screened the 1997 narrative short “Visas and Virtue,” a film inspired by the true story of Holocaust rescuer Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who issued travel visas to thousands of Jews despite his government’s orders. It went on to win the 1998 Academy Award for live action short film.

Laemmle also has supported the LAJFF since its inception 11 years ago as a location for screenings and providing publicity and help with distributors. The festival will screen at least one film every night at one of the Laemmle locations this year, except opening night.

“We like hosting festivals. It’s a lot of work and effort to do so. It’s a lot easier to pick one movie and put it on a screen five times a day for a week than to work with festival organizers, and the expectations and demands of a festival,” Laemmle said. “But they’re key to creating that opportunity, because not every film has the ability to play commercially in a standard engagement format. Without festivals, it would be difficult to bring all these pictures to Los Angeles.”

A former Laemmle employee, Melody Korenbrot, will participate in the LAJFF gala. The movie publicist has represented Oscar-winning foreign films and actors, and got her start working at Laemmle when she was 23 years old. She credits Max and Bob Laemmle and George Reese with introducing her to foreign film.

“They were the mentors. They were the teachers. They were the people who cared and let us learn and let us spread our wings,” Korenbrot told the Journal.

As the chain’s first publicist, Korenbrot remembers trying new approaches to getting more media attention for a film. For example, when the 1977 film “Why Shoot the Teacher?” opened at a Laemmle theater, she found out the co-star of the film, Samantha Eggar, lived in Los Angeles. They looked up her address and decided to ask her to do interviews for the film.

“Today, you couldn’t do what we did. We drove to her house on Mulholland and banged on her door,” Korenbrot recalled. “She was so nice and gave us her phone number. That was the beginning of getting a piece in the L.A. Times and different publications. We just did it by the seat of our pants and we enjoyed it so much. And I think that’s why I still enjoy what I do.”

Laemmle has survived with the help of local communities. Cities have subsidized rent or construction costs, and devoted film fans donate to keep theaters running. But the demise of community redevelopment agencies complicated the process of getting new theaters off the ground, and it’s always possible that landlords could evict a theater for a more profitable tenant. 

Despite the odds, the chain has been expanding since 1964. It currently has eight locations with 37 screens. Laemmle opened a complex in the North Hollywood Arts District in 2011, and renovated theaters in West L.A. and in Santa Monica. There are plans to open a new theater in Glendale in 2017, and in the Old Town Newhall district of Santa Clarita in 2018.

“People want art-house cinema all over town. They don’t just want it in the cool, bohemian section,” Laemmle said.

Helstein said the Laemmle chain represents the best of independent film and of community-focused business.

“They have an amazing history in the cinema world, and they started at a time when there was no television. People socialized and went for their entertainment, sometimes three times a week, to the cinema,” Helstein said. “In this day and age, you can watch virtually any movie you want in your home theater. And they’re still going strong in the face of so many art-house theater closures.”

This article was made possible with support from California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit