A Tale of Two Cinemas: The Mixed Reactions to Reimagining a Historic Building

Photo credit: Yo shi

It’s not everyday you see the sale of a historic building, even in the commercial real estate market. Yet, in the last 3 years, Los Angeles has witnessed two high profile sales of legendary movie theaters. Since their sales, both of these theaters have more or less been in limbo. But we’re finally starting to see some stirrings that indicate their projectors may fire up again soon. 

Netflix’s Restoration of the Egyptian Theater

Few Los Angeles movie theaters command devotion like the historic Egyptian Theatre. Renowned showman Sid Grauman designed the theater as part of his “big three” themed movie houses. The other two were the legendary Chinese Theatre (currently owned by TLC) and El Capitan Theatre (currently owned by Disney). 

Built in the 1920s, the Egyptian Theatre capitalized on America’s Egyptomania. With its columnated courtyard entry, painted hieroglyphics, and gilded motif, its strikingly exotic design won over generations of moviegoers. But its programming, primarily overseen by American Cinematheque, showed the Egyptian Theatre was just as much substance as style.

The Controversial Acquisition of a Historic Building 

Perhaps that’s why the purchase of the historic building generated such controversy. Netflix, a company who’s streaming platform finds it often at odds with the traditional cinematic experience, offered to buy the Egyptian Theatre in 2019. Despite public outcries, American Cinematheque agreed to the sale. By May 2020, Netflix had acquired the historic building. Its doors have remained (mostly) closed since then as Netflix commences with renovations costing well into the millions. 

Netflix’s Plans for the Egyptian Theatre

A full reopening of the legendary theater is now imminent. Speaking with CoStar, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos confirmed that the Egyptian Theatre will reopen in 2023. Much of its programming still remains a mystery. Sarandos briefly mentioned the company’s plans for the theater at the recent Hollywood Chamber of Commerce 2022 Economic Development Summit. “It was home to the very first Hollywood premiere,” he pointed out. “And it’ll be the home to our premieres.” Previously, the company noted that American Cinematheque will continue to manage weekend programming. 

Photo credit: Public Domain

The streaming company purchased the historic building for $14.4 million at a more lucrative time. Since then, Netflix’s competition has become more powerful, weakening the streaming giant. It laid off around 450 employees and subleased a staggering 340,000 square feet of commercial space in areas outside of Los Angeles. Yet its plans for the Egyptian Theatre forge onward. 

The Vista Theatre Under Quentin Tarantino

Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, a far less controversial purchase was being made. Lauded filmmaker Quentin Tarantino bought one of the oldest theaters in LA, the Vista Theatre, in July 2021. The Vista has a long history, originally opening as the Lou Bard Playhouse in 1923. The decades brought several changes for the historic building including reduced seating capacity and a brief period as an adult movie theater. 

But over the last 40 years, audiences recognized  the Vista for its bargain matinee prices and interior Egyptian motif. You read that right. The Egyptomania that gripped 1920s America also left its mark on this theater. The Vista is a historic building in all but the most official sense. Despite its history, it’s never been designated a historic landmark. Yet, Los Feliz’s movie going public regard it as sacred space. 

Cinephile Reverence for the “Historic Building”

Why was Tarantino’s acquisition of the Vista so much more welcomed by cinephiles than Netflix’s purchase of the Egyptian? A big part of it has to do with Tarantino’s reputation as a cinephile himself. Even film buffs that can’t get into his style can at least acknowledge the shared passion. But Tarantino earns even more confidence because this isn’t his first theater acquisition. In 2007, he bought the struggling New Beverly Cinema and completely revitalized it.

Tarantino’s Planned Renovation

It seems he’s putting even more effort into the Vista, though very few updates have been revealed to the public. Through bits and pieces of interviews, Tarantino revealed potential plans for a cafe, arcade area, and alcohol sales. In May, an application for the sale of wine and beer was submitted under Tarantino’s legal name. Similar applications clarified that the 370-seat venue would also offer 12 arcade games. 

While Tarantino hasn’t offered even a loose opening date like the Egyptian’s somewhat vague 2023, this could be for the best. Originally, Tarantino had suggested that the Vista could reopen by Christmas 2021. Yet, that date came and went without another update.  For now, we can only look at the filing of applications as progress. 

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