It is no secret the film industry is going through an upheaval both culturally and economically. What with the advent of nearly endless choices of film and television on the litany of streaming services taking the place of the movie-going experience, week after week of low box office receipts, the COVID pandemic, and Hollywood’s maddening trend of churning out a slew of nostalgia bait in the form of uninspired schlock rehashed from the beloved intellectual properties of yesteryear. Ask the average movie-goer the last film they watched that wasn’t the spawn of a tired franchise or an over-sourced comic book title, trying to squeeze out the final drop of admiration before the once feverish fandom simply doesn’t respond anymore. They will more than likely be scratching their heads.

The dwindling decline of theater audiences has, however, seen an uptick with Barbie and Oppenheimer, two wildly different films, which found a social media meme campaign to show how special the big screen experience truly is. But those kinds of marketing phenomenons are few and far between leaving little else to reinvigorate audiences’ desire to step out for a flick.

Hollywood may be the epicenter of cinematic spectacle, but La La Land needs to be reminded of its roots from time to time. The Laemmle family has spent 82 years doing just that. Actor-turned-director Raphael Sbarge decided to document the ups and downs of California’s landmark chain of art house movie theaters owned and operated by the Laemmle family with his documentary Only In Theaters. What began as a tribute to Gregory Laemmle’s legacy of keeping classic films available to the masses soon turned into so much more than Sbarge or Laemmle could have imagined.

For The Love Of Film

Filming for the documentary started like any other. Meeting the modern Laemmle family who run the theater chain. Owned by Robert and his son Greg, the business was started in 1938 by Robert’s father, a German immigrant named Max, and his uncle Kurt with the help of their successful cousin Carl Laemmle Jr., who founded Universal Pictures. Got all that? This is a family steeped in the industry since the start.

source: Kino Lorber

We are introduced to the family dynamic early on with a series of interviews with close relatives who were there from the start, some as old as 106 at the time of filming. Their rich history in the film industry, and eventual exhibition, is an eye-opening glance at the early days of Tinsel Town and the impact the Laemmle name had in shaping how people enjoy movies today. This family tree has some deep roots. Mention the Laemmle in Los Angeles and rest assured you will more than likely strike up a conversation with a cinephile curious about your favorite movies.

Didn’t See That Coming

Then, just like anything filmed in the past three years, COVID decided to change the planet as we knew it. Ticket sales dwindled. Laemmle locations were forced to make changes, close locations, and eventually cease all showings. Being the only source of non-mainstream cinema, the die-hard film community was in danger of losing an experience no other theaters offered.

source: Kino Lorber

What follows is a flashback to a time all of us would like to forget. We go through the motions of Greg and his tribe suffering through financial ruin, as their beloved bequest was bleeding money due to the lockdown. Greg‘s visage becomes sickly as the stress of failing ownership takes its toll physically and mentally. His wife Tish, and mother of their triple sons, plays the loving rock of the family, weepingly lamenting the pain her partner is going through with the epic setback. Peppered throughout are interviews with filmmakers, critics, and movie lovers alike sharing their memories at the Laemmle as a bittersweet portrait of what could be lost. They’re inspirations. The joy of seeing films not available on the big screen anywhere else. The history being passed down to the next generation of auteurs. All the while reminding the viewer of what is truly at stake with the absence of old movie houses.

Down But Not Out

There is hope, movie lovers, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending.

The art of film has become, for some, one of the most important art forms of the modern world, and isn’t it amazing that a film can be streamed from the very device you are presently reading this review on?  A convenience we have become all too accustomed to, what with the ease of use and a Rolodex of movies at our fingertips, but the intended experience is lost. The crowd reacting in unison to the action on screen. The audible gasping at a well-written twist. The grand scale of witnessing a perfectly framed shot by an artist displaying their singular vision to the world. These things are important. It’s a medium that demands an immersive experience, not squinting at a device during a morning commute.

Film is art.

Only In Theaters is a love letter to film. A history lesson. The biography of a legacy. The sum of its parts is layered and vast, evoking happiness, sorrow, love, fear, loss, and victory. All of the elements of a powerful narrative, only it actually happened. If this were not a documentary, the plot would make an amazing film.

A definite recommend, Only In Theaters shows a love for its subject and the art form of film.


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