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For Those Who Think Outside the Box Office

Cover Story

\o7 Cineastes\f7 in search of intelligent life beyond the megaplex can find solace in alternative Southland venues.

August 30, 2001|PHIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Matt Chernov isn't sure he'll like "Dead Creatures." The new British film about flesh-eating women might be awful, but he's sure the American Cinematheque matinee will at least deliver more surprises than the mainstream films showing at the mall.

Hollywood's latest batch of summer blockbusters feels less like entertainment and more like "punching a clock," the 33-year-old hotel manager said.

"I can't remember the last time I saw something really good at a multiplex," he lamented.

Chernov, who sees up to six movies a week, frequently skips the corporate megaplexes in favor of smaller venues--including American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre--where the challenge isn't wading through 80 people to buy a box of Milk Duds; it's on the screen.

Despite profit margins that are often paper-thin, a limited audience and a proliferation of video stores that all but wiped out the revival houses, Los Angeles' alternative venues manage to lure film lovers such as Chernov away from the mall with creative, edgy programming, screenings at such classic Art Deco venues as the Warner Grand in San Pedro and the promise of a rare--or even once-in-a-lifetime--experience.

It can be a tough crowd. For instance, the Laemmle theater group, the city's leading operator of alternative venues, recently shut down the old Colorado theater in Pasadena because audiences preferred the new amenities of the chain's nearby Playhouse 7.

"If we opened a film at the Colorado and played it there a couple of weeks, then moved it to the Playhouse, the audiences waited for it to move to the Playhouse," said Robert Laemmle, the chain's president. "The handwriting was on the wall."

Laemmle said business has been quite good at his 29 other venues. He's even expanded as other chains, such as Landmark Theatres and Edwards Theater Circuit, have closed alternative venues. Attrition has left only a few such venues outside the heart of Los Angeles: for example, Seal Beach's 54-year-old landmark Bay Theatre, Edwards' South Coast Village in Costa Mesa and Laemmle's Town Center in Encino.

Meanwhile, actual independents such as the New Beverly, L.A.'s last true revival house, are increasingly competing for an audience with the area's institutional powerhouses, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Film Institute and UCLA's Film and Television Archive.

Business is not what it was in the '80s, the halcyon days when revival theaters proliferated all over the country," said New Beverly proprietor Sherman Torgan. "There were quite a few in Los Angeles, and there was still a large audience to share. The museum venues have become more revival theaters than they were before. Look at the programming at the [Los Angeles County Museum of Art]; it's a much hipper type of programming than it was years ago, when it seemed that they were going after an older audience. Now they're going after a younger, sort of more film-sophisticated audience."

This tough competition is great for film buffs. Nowhere else outside New York does the audience have more choices. And though some \o7 cineastes\f7 argue that New York's alternative film scene is superior, L.A. benefits from an insider's edge.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of "Nashville," there was no doubt filmmaker Robert Altman would be there to discuss his masterpiece. Cast and crew reunions are common at L.A. venues, and they are easier to pull off because most of the key players live nearby.

And because Los Angeles is home to many of those leading the effort to preserve rare films (and the enthusiasts willing to spend considerable time and effort to track them down), audiences are often treated to screenings of one-of-a-kind films--including the only remaining 70-millimeter print of "Ben-Hur," a rare edit of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and a version of Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" enhanced by dye transfer.

"The colors were amazing. That's the kind of thing you're only going to see at the Cinematheque," said Dennis Bartok, the theater's programmer.

But the scene doesn't stop at foreign art films and Academy Award winners. In the coming weeks, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Infra-Man," "Young Frankenstein" and other campy classics will return to the big screen. The New Beverly, the cornerstone of Los Angeles' revival scene, is joined by theaters such as the Rialto in South Pasadena and the "Friday Night Classics" series at the Warner Grand in San Pedro.

Meanwhile, the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood is introducing old-school Hollywood to a new generation of film lovers. Proprietor Charlie Lustman said the theater is popular with 20-and 30-year-olds who often dress in period clothing for screenings.

"It's a true, hip revival," he said.

Hip, yes. Sometimes painfully.

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