‘The Big Screen Is Back,’ But In Santa Monica, Not Quite

On Wednesday morning, studio executives and exhibitors will rally at AMC’s Century City 15 multiplex to cheer the return of movie theaters that had been closed by the pandemic. “The Big Screen Is Back,” they’ll declare.

Glad to hear it. That’s great, as far as it goes.

But those movers and shakers should probably charter a couple of well-ventilated, thoroughly sanitized buses and take a 15-minute ride to downtown Santa Monica’s crumbling theater zone when the conference is over.  The junket will remind them how much damage has yet to be repaired before filmgoers can sort through the continuing confusion—theaters half-open? about to open? closed forever?—and actually dare to enjoy the simple pleasure of dinner and a movie.

The junketers might begin their tour on Fourth Street, at Santa Monica’s Parking Structure 3, just around the corner from the AMC 7 multiplex and what used to be Mann’s Criterion (now home to Victoria’s Secret). On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission approved a city plan to demolish the structure, eliminating 337 parking spots. Those aren’t cheap: After the first 90 minutes, which are free, prices rise to as much as $25. But they were convenient for the movie crowd, when there was one.

Only a few years ago, the plan had been to replace the structure with a new multiplex in lieu of the long-gone Criterion. But priorities changed. The site will now have affordable housing. Moviegoers can squeeze into a lot down the way (or, like our junketers, take the bus).

A natural next stop would be the AMC 7, on the Third Street Promenade at Arizona. It’s a workhorse theater for the far West Side. Kids’ parties. Date nights. Theater checks for nervous producers on opening weekend.

But while “The Big Screen Is Back,” it isn’t quite back here. At 8:15 a.m. on Monday morning, the “Now Showing” posters offered films with Billy Crystal and Angelina Jolie. But handbills plastered on the box-office continued to say: “This theater is temporarily closed.”

AMC’s Web site confirmed the closure, but offered no guidance, other than to advise checking back.

The picture was brighter at AMC’s Broadway theater, two blocks down the promenade. There, our junketers could press noses against the glass, and see faint signs of movie life—a ticket sales counter that didn’t look dusty, and “mask required” warnings that implied occasional human presence. This one, says AMC’s Web site, is indeed open, three days a week. Come May 27, it will be open daily, assuming the plan doesn’t change.

Nine more days, and the Broadway big screens will truly be back. Much smaller ones are already operating at Laemmle’s indie-oriented theater on nearby Second Street. So fans have choices, at least on weekends, and might even find dinner somewhere in between (though not at Trastavere, the big corner café/restaurant that, like several counterparts here, is now vacant).

Normally, the tour would proceed to Santa Monica Place, a handsome mall, and its ArcLight Cinemas. But the ArcLight chain has shut down, and the mall’s owner, as reported, is pursuing eviction and back rent.

In fact, Santa Monica’s new-ish ArcLight was a weak link in its chain even before Covid. Traffic, street dwellers, and those $25 parking fees made it a tough sell for those who just wanted an easy night out.

Now, the lobby is dark, and the LED-board outside, a very big screen, is pushing–quelle horreur!— a streaming service, HBO Max.

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