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(Raphael Sbarge’s Only in Theaters opens Friday, January 20 in New York before making it’s way across the U.S. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

In a theatrical model where only the latest blockbusters find a home, what is lost? This is the question taken up by director Raphael Sbarge (LA Foodways) in his latest movie, the documentary Only in Theaters, which follows the Laemmle family as they contemplate selling the chain of Los Angeles-area arthouse venues that bear their name. It’s not an easy decision to make, but the alternative could be bankruptcy and ruin. There just isn’t the audience of yore. And this is before COVID strikes.

Filled with testimonials from a wide range of filmmakers who love the Laemmles, the movie examines what a dedicated team of cinephiles can accomplish. Whether the interview subjects be Allison Anders, Ava DuVernay, Nicole Holofcener, James Ivory, or anyone of the many others, they all speak to the power of cinemas to lift up the medium. And even if there is more than a little too much repetition on this topic and denigration of the smaller screens that—let’s face it—most of us watch movies on these days, the point is clear: the communal experience of sitting in the dark with a group of strangers and having the moving image and its accompanying sound wash over you is something special.

As is the commitment to ensuring a diversity of content. Given that smaller films never make it to the major chains, it’s places like the Laemmle theaters that have ensured, since their founding 82 years ago, that every kind of movie might make it onto the marquee. But with the rise of streamers, much of what relied on these alternative screens for exhibition now pivots to home viewing. Convenience, as always, trumps everything.

While we ponder how we feel about that (and for the record, though I love seeing movies in theaters, I nevertheless watch the bulk of what I watch on my 55-inch television in my living room), we are treated to a highly engaging history lesson, taking us to the original brothers, Max and Kurt Laemmle. Nephews of Carl, who founded Universal Studios, they joined the family business, but with a twist. Now it’s up to Greg—grandson of Max and son of the octogenarian Bob (who expanded the chain in the 1950s and still maintains an honorary position at the company)—to keep things going. The path to his ultimate choice provides the central conflict of the film.

Greg, his wife Tish, their children, and Bob all make for pleasant company, even as the stress of the situation grows more intense. And then the pandemic hits, and all bets are off. Without spoiling the ending, ask yourself what you think is important: is the big screen still a big deal, or are you happy with staying home for all but the gigantic cinematic events? Personally, I’d hate to see small theaters disappear, but that means we have to vote with our feet and our wallets. Maybe one day “only in theaters” will be but a distant memory. Get your tickets while you still can.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

Raphael Sbarge; Only in Theaters documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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