LOS ANGELES — When, in May 2020, Netflix finalized their deal to acquire Hollywood’s famed Egyptian Theatre, the news sent pangs of anxiety through a film community already reeling from the city-wide closure of cinemas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Netflix says it will restore the 100-year-old movie palace’s Egyptian Revival-style architecture, renovate the interior, and upgrade projection and sound equipment. But for many of Los Angeles’s most ardent cinephiles, these promises don’t outweigh the streaming giant’s plan to allocate over half of the theater’s weekly calendar space to screenings of Netflix titles. After a number of delays due to the pandemic, the Egyptian is now slated for a 2022 relaunch. A year from now, the lobby may not be the only thing that looks different.
Run for over two decades by the nonprofit American Cinematheque, the Egyptian had in recent years been losing money to the point that a sale was necessary simply to keep the lights on. Under the deal, the Cinematheque — which, in addition to running the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, recently announced a programming partnership with the Los Feliz 3 cinema — will continue to program autonomously on weekends, while Netflix will use the theater for their premieres and special events during the week. It seems far-fetched that the arrangement will somehow, per PR literature, allow the Cinematheque to “expand the scope and diversity of its widely praised movie and event programming,” but it’s nonetheless preferable to the alternative; look no further than the fate befallen the recently shuttered ArcLight Cinemas and its equally storied Cinerama Dome.
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“It was always a very tricky balance to keep [the Egyptian] functioning,” said Gwen Deglise, deputy director and co-director of programming at the Cinematheque, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. She pointed out that “the American Cinematheque does not own the Aero” either (though it does have full control of programming) and that thus “it made more sense for the American Cinematheque not to own the Egyptian, and to get the support of an organization that could keep the building in great shape and handle the seismic retrofitting that’s required by the city and state.”
Opened in 1922 by entertainment tycoon Sid Grauman, the Egyptian played host to Hollywood’s first-ever movie premiere: Douglas Fairbank’s action-adventure picture Robin Hood. For the next six decades the theater was one of LA’s primary venues for classic and contemporary studio fare. (Grauman, who had already founded downtown’s Million Dollar Theater, would, within five years, go on to open both the El Capitan Theatre and Chinese Theatre along the same two-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard.) After first closing in 1992, the Egyptian was famously purchased from the city for $1 by the Cinematheque, which remodeled and reopened the theater in 1998 with the additional Spielberg Theatre screening room and a revamped programming philosophy that made room for international, arthouse, and experimental cinema alongside the theater’s familiar rotation of repertory titles from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
For Maggie Mackay, executive director of the nonprofit film space Vidiots, the Egyptian is “a place to see movies I’ve loved my whole life that I rarely get to see on a big screen with an audience,” citing a 25th-anniversary screening of John Carpenter’s Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis in attendance as one particularly memorable experience. With special events like this and fan-favorite genre festivals like Noir City: Hollywood and Beyond Fest, an annual showcase for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films, one was rarely left wanting by the Egyptian’s eclectic screening slate.
No doubt, among the most unfortunate aspects of Netflix’s planned renovation is the removal of the Spielberg room, where Los Angeles Filmforum screened a wide variety of artists’ cinema for over 20 years. Tucked off from the theater’s front lobby, the Spielberg, which Deglise admits “never really worked for the Cinematheque” because of its small size and the attendant costs involved in keeping it operational, was an oasis for adventurous outside curation. “[It] served a unique function,” said filmmaker and archivist Ross Lipman, whose 2015 documentary NOTFILM screened to sold-out audiences for a week in the Spielberg. “[It] was a small, intimate space capable of all-format presentations. It was great for shows that were too esoteric for larger spaces, but still merited a professional touch.”
As Adam Hyman, executive director of Los Angeles Filmforum, told me: “The American Cinematheque was really good to us, with cheap rent for a good screening room of the right size for most of our audiences.” While Filmforum had lost calendar dates in recent years, because of the Cinematheque’s financial needs, Hyman said it “didn’t seem fatal.” It was only later, when reading about Netflix’s renovation plans, that Hyman knew the Spielberg’s days were numbered. By then, he said, “it was a done deal.”
While Filmforum has confirmed a new screening space at the revamped Bootleg Theater, Hyman believes the loss of the Spielberg will affect more than just his series. “There will need to be a new space that can host 80 to 120 people for smaller festivals,” he said, noting that a number of key venues have either closed for good or have yet to announce plans to reopen after the pandemic. Paul Malcolm, film programmer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, agreed: “The Spielberg is a loss, full stop, for an essential part of that community that I’m assuming now has to find a regular home again.”
Despite all this, many in the community believe the Egyptian can still be a vital part of LA’s theatrical ecosystem, which will soon welcome Vidiots’ Eagle Rock cinema as well as two theaters at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. “It’s important to remember,” Malcolm said, “that [organizations like the Archive] are not separate from the community we serve and that our success depends on having a lot of different kinds of programming institutions all contributing their unique visions to the whole.” Lipman concurs, adding that “if [the Cinematheque] can keep their programming intact and at a reasonable volume [at the Egyptian] — if this lets them stay solvent — I’m fine with Netflix using the theater on other nights, and will be glad they stepped in.”
Not unlike their recent acquisition of New York’s Paris Theatre, Netflix is now invested in one of LA’s most iconic cinemas — which, questions of monopolization notwithstanding, does preserve an essential part of Hollywood history. Said Mackay: “I wish that arts nonprofits, especially those fighting to keep film accessible to the public and to maintain human interaction around cinema, were better supported by government and public funding, but ultimately, it’s good news that we’ll still be able to go to the Egyptian, that the building will remain, and that movies still have a place in Hollywood.”