Review: Only In Theaters (2022)


Theaters were hit hard by the pandemic and subsequent quarantine closures, but the impact of the crisis on small businesses and independent movie houses was catastrophic. Only In Theaters, a 2022 documentary from Raphael Sbarge, begins a year or two before the global crisis and focuses on Greg Laemmle's family history in the motion picture industry and their life-long devotion to cinema. And that word--cinema--is very important because Laemmle Theatres never showed big blockbusters and commercial studio fare; rather, they were an island in an ocean of excess, focusing on independent, foreign, arthouse, and auteur cinema. Through Laemmle, many films were given a theatrical showing that enabled them to be eligible for Academy Awards. 

Owning a theater chain must be great, right? Right! Well, yes and no. The dramatic conflict of the story comes from the fact that the independent film business isn't what it once was. Many audiences seem to be only interested in thrill rides and spectacle films, leaving quieter, more meditative stories for streaming, which is presented in the earlier parts of this documentary as the enemy. Streaming kills independent theaters, we're told. To a family that has spent decades showing unique films, streaming is not only direct competition, it's a potential career-ender. How will Greg keep his theaters alive when he's feeling exhausted and frustrated? Will he walk away from the business that his family built? 

That's act one. Act two is the arrival of the pandemic where everything gets much, much worse. Audience numbers that had been dwindling are now nonexistent. Business all across America (and worldwide) shutter their doors forever. Can Laemmle Theatres survive? 

One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is that it captures a changing culture at the exact moment of transformation. When the entire world was forced to lock their doors and stay inside, streaming became one of our only windows into the outside world. In the doc, people who are heavily invested in the success of independent theaters become streaming customers. The realization that streaming isn't going away presents the challenge of finding a way for streaming and theatrical to co-exist side by side. There is nothing like the communal film experience; sitting in a darkened room with dozens or hundreds of strangers, all willing to go on the same journey together, laughing and crying together. But there's nothing like streaming either, and the convenience it affords can't be dismissed. Only In Theaters starts as the story of Greg Laemmle's efforts to preserve his family's legacy. By its conclusion, it has become a story about the very nature of film and how we view it. 

I screened the documentary on DVD from Kino Lorber, which contains over an hour of extended interviews with many notable figures such as Cameron Crowe, Leonard Maltin, Ava DuVernay, and Roger Christensen who speak about their own love for cinema and the importance of the theatrical experience. Their affection is contagious. 

Only In Theaters is essential viewing for cinephiles, especially in this time of evolution and change within the film industry where streaming and theatrical are both in a drastic state of flux. 

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