AWARD THIS! 2023 NOMINEE! Director Raphael Sbarge’s documentary Only in Theaters gives us the history of Laemmle theaters while following Greg Laemmle and his family as they try to keep their historic movie palaces afloat in modern times. The rise of streaming, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, has had a humongous financial impact on all theaters, especially art house cinema chains such as Laemmle.
The Laemmle name is synonymous with cinema. “Uncle Carl” Laemmle, as he’s called in the film, famously founded Universal Pictures, while his nephews Max and Kurt started the Laemmle Los Angeles-based theater chain in 1938. There’s been a Laemmle running the small yet influential independent movie theater chain ever since.
I’ve read about theater struggles for the past couple of years, but Sbarge puts a face to it. The way that the film shows the emotional toll that it takes on both Greg Laemmle and his wife, Tish, is something that needs to be seen to truly comprehend the damage that’s been done. Laemmle has the unenviable task of trying to decide if he’ll sell the family business that means so much to him and the entire indie film community since he’s losing money hand over fist or trying to stick it out for hopefully brighter days.
“…Greg Laemmle and his family…try to keep their historic movie palaces afloat…”
The theater-going experience can be special, but the convenience of streaming and the necessity of it during lockdown have changed our movie-watching habits. Only in Theaters touches on how the Laemmle family faced a similar struggle during the rise of the television set when the masses realized that they could stay home and still be entertained.
I’m writing this review because I love movies, and I assume you’re reading this because you do too. We all know that there is nothing that can match going to a theater, being in a dark, silent room filled with strangers who are feeling a range of emotions collectively. It can be magical, in the way that going to a concert or sporting event can be (except you probably won’t laugh or cry as much at those events). We also, unfortunately, know what it feels like to have those experiences ripped away from us, and it sucks.
That’s what makes Laemmle’s struggle so relatable. If he were to sell the chain, he would feel the weight of that loss for not only himself but his community and his family (not to mention the history involved). The film shows how essential Laemmle theaters have been to influential filmmakers such as Cameron Crowe, Ava DuVernay, and Allison Anders, among others. It was often the first, and sometimes only, theater chain showing highly important independent movies, such as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
The message behind the documentary is to get off your couch and go support indie theaters. I couldn’t agree more. Watching how it was a struggle to get people into the seats even before the pandemic and all the stress that Greg and Tish Laemmle endure is a little tough to watch at times, but Only in Theaters is essential viewing for every filmgoer.
Only in Theaters is a 2023 Award This! Film About Movies or Filmmaking.
"…essential viewing for every filmgoer. "