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Laemmle Theatres to vacate Sunset 5; Sundance to take over lease

November 3, 2011 |  8:15 pm

Sunset5-marquee

It's the end of an era for a West Hollywood movie house that has been a mainstay of the independent cinema scene for the last 20 years.

Laemmle Theatres will stop operating the Sunset 5 at the end of the month after being unable to come to terms with the landlord on a new lease.

Robert Redford's Sundance Cinemas will take over the five-screen complex Dec. 1 and will temporarily close it for renovations, with plans to reopen in late spring. This marks the entry of Westlake Village-based exhibitor into the Los Angeles area. Sundance Cinemas operates theaters in Madison, Wis., San Francisco and Houston.

Although the Sunset 5 will remain operational, the loss of Laemmle as its programmer marks a significant shift for the independent film business in the Los Angeles area. Filmmakers such as Catherine Hardwicke  ("Thirteen"), Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") and Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") had their films premiere at the movie house on Sunset Boulevard near Crescent Heights.

"I've seen so many inspiring films at the Sunset 5 -- movies you couldn't see anywhere else," Hardwicke said. "Then I got lucky and my directorial debut, 'Thirteen,' screened there. It was a real honor to do a Q&A in this iconic indie theatre. I even had a heckler in a fake beard and mustache and a stalker chick that made her own fliers for the screening. I'll miss the Laemmle vibe, but I'm glad to hear that the theater will reopen in the spring."

Over the years, the programming for the theater became more of a challenge as first-rate art house titles were attracted to higher-end cinemas in the area, specifically Pacific Theatres at the Grove, which took over the location in late 2002; the Arclight Hollywood, which opened in 2003; and the Landmark Theatres on Pico Boulevard, which launched in 2007.

“Ever since the Arclight and the Grove opened, we lost some attendance,” said Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theatres. “We still had hit films such as ‘Monster’ [starring Charlize Theron] and ‘Half Nelson’ [starring Ryan Gosling] along the way. But we started seeing fewer and fewer of them. Distributors were under pressure to get into the Arclight.”

Recently, the theater has been more of a destination for smallest-budgeted indie films entering their second run after opening at the larger chains first. Currently, Roadside Attractions' drama "Margin Call" is playing at the theater, as is Sony Classics' "Take Shelter."

“It’s the end of the era,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “All of our movies eventually went through the Sunset. Laemmle was our guy. He really programmed for his audience, and they were always very selective. There were few screens that programmed for specialized product back then.”

Laemmle plans to open a new seven-screen theater in North Hollywood by the end of the year. The theater, Laemmle said, will be "simple, clean, utilitarian and well-located to provide an authentic experience for the people in the neighborhood." The exhibitor intends to bring its same eclectic approach to movie programming to the new site.

It's unclear how Sundance Cinemas, which opened its first theater in 2007, will avoid a similar fate at the Sunset location. The company has renovated existing theaters and built new ones, specializing in upscale food and drink options and reserved seating, similar to the Arclight.

The renovated Sunset 5 may fit in well with the surrounding mall, which includes a Trader Joe's store and a Burke Williams spa.

Sundance Cinemas also offers a slew of alternative programming, lectures and screening series, taking advantage of Redford's annual Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah, and the Sundance television channel.

“Maybe fresh blood will bring new life into the theater and come new cash too," Sony's Bernard said. "A face lift on the theater may attract new audiences and make it a place to be."

-- Nicole Sperling

Photo: Laemmle Theatres' Sunset 5, earlier this decade. Credit: Kevin Crust / Los Angeles Times

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