Celebrities Aren’t the Only Ones Saving Historic Cinemas

When Jason Reitman announced that he’d bought the Fox Village Theatre in Westwood, film fans were stunned that some of the world’s most prominent directors, from Steven Spielberg to Chloé Zhao to Christopher Nolan, wanted a stake in the classic movie palace.

But it’s a strange time for the theatrical exhibition business. Moviegoing always sees an uptick when blockbusters come to town, but for independent theaters, the past four years have been dreadful. Many smaller cities have no theaters left at all: Just this year, Ridgewood, N.J.’s Warner and Denver’s Esquire are among the theaters that have turned off their projectors for good.

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Yet across the country, some operators refuse to give up, looking to a mix of successful filmmakers and local supporters to reopen beloved movie houses. Joining Reitman and New Beverly/Vista owner Quentin Tarantino is director Kevin Smith, who is hustling to keep his childhood theater alive in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. It takes deep pockets, whether from celebrities or community fundraising, to restore the neon-lit marquees and art deco flourishes of classic movie palaces that are often showing a century of wear and tear.

Other cities are turning arthouse operations over to nonprofits. In Palm Springs, the Plaza Theatre was the home of the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies before falling into disrepair. Now, the Palm Springs Plaza Theatre Foundation is restoring the Spanish-style building that sits at the center of the resort community.

The revitalization of the theater was a leap of faith for former city official J.R. Roberts, head of the foundation. “I remember thinking this project would probably never happen because studios were streaming into our living rooms,” Roberts says. “I thought, ‘Oh, fuck, this is the last nail in the coffin — studios finally got rid of the middleman.’”

But with the help of a major donation from “Frasier” co-creator David Lee and the city, the foundation has raised more than $20 million. “When you walk in, it will once again be 1936,” Roberts says. “But it will be state-of-the-art lighting, sound, seats, acoustics — everything.”

Built in 1936, Palm Springs’ Plaza Theatre welcomed vacationing celebrities and residents for eight decades.
Built in 1936, Palm Springs’ Plaza Theatre welcomed vacationing celebrities and residents for eight decades.

When the Plaza reopens next year, it will be operated and managed by the Oak View Group, which owns Acrisure Arena in Palm Desert. In addition to programming movies and live music, the 720-seat auditorium will include a Palm Springs history museum and could once again host the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which launched at the Plaza in 1990.

Despite the tough climate for independent films, theaters are being saved by corporations from streamers to car companies. Netflix, for example, took over the Egyptian, Paris and Bay theaters. Electric vehicle company Rivian reconceived the quaint 100-year-old South Coast Theatre in Laguna Beach as a flexible space that can show films when it’s not hosting the latest electric vehicle launch, though admittedly film exhibition is not its primary function anymore.

“We wanted a place where we could be a part of the community,” says Denise Cherry, VP of experience design at Rivian. “This theater had languished for a number of years. We knew when we first got this site that it had to stay true to its roots. But it really offered an interesting opportunity for people to experience our products and our brands.”

Elsewhere, film festivals play a major part in keeping venues active year-round. The Seattle International Film Festival, which runs the Egyptian and the Uptown, added the Cinerama to its substantial cinema footprint in 2023, renaming it the Downtown.

In Milwaukee, the city’s oldest movie house, the Downer, is reopening just in time for the Milwaukee Film Festival next week, joining the festival’s other cinema, the Oriental. Milwaukee Film artistic director Cara Ogburn says, “A priority for us was to make sure it didn’t get converted from a theater into, like, a gym, to save it from being unoccupied.

“It’s less about saving the historic cinema and more about preserving cinemagoing for the city,” she says, describing local filmgoers as “quite curious and adventurous.”

Ogburn says a younger audience seems to be discovering cinema going as an event. “No one ever said no to seeing a David Lynch movie on the big screen again,” she says. “Some people haven’t had the chance to see these classics on the bigger screen. Not just the Hitchcocks, but the cult classics.” The theaters keep the event experience going with beer and wine and specialty cocktails like tiny martinis for “Asteroid City” — plus, they’re the only theaters in town that offer brewer’s yeast for popcorn.

Meanwhile, Raleigh, N.C.’s 88-year-old Rialto was brought back from life support in late 2023 thanks to one dedicated local entrepreneur who rallied supporters to buy the neighborhood favorite. “There’s a fear of losing the identity and the cultural touchstones of the city, and the Rialto is one of them,” says new owner Hayes Permar, who worked in TV production before diving into the exhibition business.

Permar is bringing in comedy, live music, elementary school graduations, fake snow, a film club, maybe a burlesque show — anything that will help lure Raleigh residents. “At Christmas, we showed ‘Home Alone’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘Elf.’ I think it will become a bucket-list item where people will say, ‘Oh, we have to see Christmas movies at the Rialto,’” Permar says. He adds, “Give me some time to learn, and we’ll figure out how to keep this thing alive.”

As important as it is for cities to preserve architecturally significant buildings, even more crucial is reminding people of the value of a thriving community space.

“There’s something about the communal viewing experience that feels even more vital post-pandemic,” says Ogburn. “People are realizing, ‘I wasn’t just going to the movies for the movie — I was also going for this communal experience.”

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