Robert Bucksbaum on selling the Crest Theater: 'It was pretty sad'
Robert Bucksbaum got to live out every film lover's dream for the past eight years, owning and operating his own movie theater, the Majestic Crest, whose marquee is something of a landmark on Westwood Boulevard here in Los Angeles. As it turned out, the dream was a little too good to be true. Times were hard the past few years, finally forcing Bucksbaum to sell the historic theater to Bigfoot Entertainment, an international entertainment firm that produces and finances independent feature films, TV series and reality shows. Carmike Cinemas, one of the nation's leading movie exhibitors, will be operating the theater. Its tenure started Friday with the new animated film, "Alpha and Omega."
When I talked to Bucksbaum Friday, he had something of a bittersweet taste in his mouth. He'd spent all day Thursday moving out of the theater's upstairs offices. "It was pretty sad," he said. "I always thought that I was going to own the theater for the rest of my life, pass it along to my kids and show everybody that you could really run a single-screen theater in this day and age."
But in the end, he had too much competition from more modern multiplexes, especially the Landmark over on Pico and the new AMC complex in Century City, which could offer moviegoers easy access to parking and lots of different film choices all under one roof. Bucksbaum knew that his neighborhood audience wanted to see first-run art-house-style fare, but he couldn't persuade studio distribution execs to give him first crack at their films.
He told me that the Crest did about 80% more business before the Landmark opened several years ago. "It just became too difficult to try to run the Crest as a first-run theater when the independent art-house films were always going to the Landmark and Century City first," he said. "It meant that we had to wait at least six weeks before we could get the movies and that was just too long."
It will be interesting to see what kind of films the Carmike chain books into the Crest, which was built in 1941 as a legitimate theater by Henry Fonda's second wife, Frances Seymour Brokaw. The theater's Westwood neighborhood audience is older and affluent, the sort of crowd that will be far more likely to want to see upcoming films like "Secretariat" or "Hereafter" than "Jackass 3D." Carmike is a big, mass-appeal chain, headquartered in Columbus, Ga., which traditionally has serviced small towns and suburban areas across the South. It operates nearly 250 theaters in such locales as Decatur, Ala.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Altoona, Pa. It has a few theaters as far west as Arizona and Washington, but the Crest will be its first in California.
Bucksbaum says Carmike is upgrading the theater, with new digital projectors with 3-D capacity and a new silver screen. He's optimistic that a bigger chain with more leverage can make a go of it, even with a single-screen theater. "Carmike will be able to get a better assortment of product because they have a lot more pull with the studios," he said. "They can say that you have to give us one of your good films to play in Westwood or we won't be playing it on any of our screens across the South."
Bucksbaum has several other entertainment-related businesses and operates another small theater in Wofford, Calif., so he won't totally be out of the game. But he'll miss having a theater that's just a few blocks from his own home. He says he'll also miss the many loyal patrons that were regular Crest moviegoers. When you went to the Crest, you knew you were patronizing a theater with old-fashioned hands-on management.
When I first visited the Crest, not long after Bucksbaum bought the theater in 2003, I bumped into a woman right outside the theater who'd just seen a film there. "Wasn't that a nice man taking tickets at the door?" she asked. "Someone should tell the owner how friendly he is. It makes you feel right at home."
"Actually," I told her. "he is the owner."
That era is over now. I'm just hoping the Crest's new owner puts as much love and care into the old moviehouse as Bucksbaum did.
Photo: Westwood's Majestic Crest Theater is a Deco delight. Credit: Los Angeles Times