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Laemmle calls off sale of Claremont 5 theater but needs more moviegoers

The Laemmle Claremont 5 movie theater may not fade to black after all.

The family-owned independent theater, an anchor in downtown Claremont, was in escrow to a buyer who proposed to shutter the theater and convert the property into a hotel, two restaurants and a rooftop lounge.

But in an ending worthy of a feel-good movie, the sale has been called off.

“It was a very long escrow,” Greg Laemmle, president of the eight-theater chain, tells me by phone. “There had already been one extension. We could not come to an agreement on terms for another extension.”

He adds of the theater: “It won’t be back on the market.”

If this were an old-time movie, Greg Laemmle would tear the contract in half in front of the assembled townfolk, who would cheer and throw their hats and parasols in the air. A character actor would crack a joke to release the tension. Music would swell. The credits would roll.

This being real life, the news may be more of a reprieve, not a guarantee.

The Claremont 5 remains threatened by weak ticket sales. Laemmle says he’ll give his easternmost theater one year to turn around.

I asked how much business needs to improve to be sustainable.

“We’re about half of where we need to be as far as revenue,” Laemmle says.

Business needs to double? Ulp.

Some of that increase will occur naturally as studios get back to a normal release schedule and as people feel more comfortable returning to theaters, Laemmle says. For its part, the chain will try to boost its marketing to get the word out.

Some moviegoers may have not realized the theater is operating again after a 14-month closure during the pandemic. Others may have written the theater off as a lost cause and moved on, Laemmle says ruefully.

To stay in business, he says, the Claremont 5 needs “a long-term solution.”

If you’re a movie lover, consider this a call to arms. Or to eyeballs.

A poster on an easel inside the Claremont 5 promotes the 1 p.m. Jan. 14 screening of “Only in Theaters,” a documentary about the Laemmle chain, at which president Greg Laemmle will be present. Paper cups atop the water fountain, allowing patrons to skip the concessions stand, are a friendly touch. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

In the meantime, this is better news than many of us expected.

The Laemmle family has operated theaters around L.A. County since 1938 that are generally dedicated to foreign, indie and arthouse movies. A recent documentary about the chain, “Only in Theaters,” tells the story, including how L.A. County’s shutdown of indoor theaters for 14 months during the pandemic nearly wiped the Laemmles out.

Theaters in Pasadena, West L.A. and North Hollywood were sold. Claremont’s was put up for sale.

Greg Laemmle came to one screening of “Only in Theaters” at the Claremont 5 in November, then fielded questions afterward from anxious moviegoers. “Is this theater going to close?” was the first.

Laemmle said he didn’t know. The sale wasn’t final, so all wasn’t lost, but he didn’t seem hopeful.

“The more people come, the more we’ll have the fortitude to say, ‘we’re going to stay,’” Laemmle said.

“Only in Theaters” is making a return visit to the theater at 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14. Laemmle will again be in attendance. Yours truly will host the Q&A.

“I wanted to give people another showing, share the news — and throw down the gauntlet,” Laemmle says. “There’s a level of business we need to do, and we’re not doing it. But I like to think it’s achievable.”

The theater has many fans, me among them. But attendance is often marginal.

As Laemmle puts it in our conversation, “It’s not enough to say ‘there should be a theater in Claremont.’ People should be supporting a theater in Claremont.”

I remind him of an anecdote he shared with me in 2008 on the first anniversary of the theater. A woman had urged him to show a certain specialty movie she wanted to see. He replied with good news: It was booked to play the following Tuesday through Thursday.

Her classic response: “That’s not convenient for me.”

The theater has settled upon a mix: a mainstream movie — currently “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” — in the main auditorium, with the four smaller theaters hosting a range of specialty films. Starting Friday, they are “The Whale,” “Corsage,” “Broker,” “A Man Called Otto” (starring Tom Hanks) and “Saint Omer.”

In recent weeks, friends who are regulars at the theater tell me worriedly that they’ve watched acclaimed movies like “EO” with audiences in the single digits.

Minutes before a 7 p.m. Tuesday screening of the documentary “Turn Every Page,” a Claremont 5 auditorium is empty. The well-reviewed movie ultimately played to an audience of three. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

On Tuesday night I went to see “Turn Every Page,” a documentary about biographer Robert Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a “90% fresh” rating from critics and an audience rating of 100%. “What a pleasure it is to witness these two gentlemen at work, doing something they love,” wrote Leonard Maltin.

When I entered the small theater, every seat was empty.

During the coming attractions, a man entered, soon followed by his wife. And that’s how it stayed for the next 90 minutes: three of us in the theater.

If the Claremont 5 needs to double its ticket sales, well, getting six people instead of three people to see a movie does indeed seem achievable.

The movie was a treat, and all three of us laughed at various points. The audience rating of 100% held.

In the lobby afterward, David and Lisa Pion-Berlin told me they’ve been patrons virtually every week since the Claremont 5 opened. Like a lot of us, the Claremont couple used to drive 30 miles to the nearest Laemmle in Pasadena.

But they’ve worried about the theater’s future from the start.

“We’re lucky if we see three or four other people in the theater for any film. We’re always concerned about whether the theater will survive,” said David, 70, a political science professor at UC Riverside.

The younger generation doesn’t seem as interested in the collective experience of seeing movies in public, David lamented.

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“It’s like we have our own private screening room. It’s cool,” David allowed, “but it’s sad at the same time.”

Lisa, 67, is president and CEO of Parents Anonymous, a nonprofit devoted to strengthening families. She said it’s important for people to get out of their homes and into the world.

“It’s really great it’s here,” Lisa said of the theater. “It’s a special jewel.”

David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, popcorn not included. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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