New Owner of Westwood's Crest to Keep Reels Turning

By CHRISTOPHER KEOUGH
Staff Reporter

Robert Bucksbaum takes a pad and pen and writes the number: $3.2 million.

It's too much money to utter aloud. All the same, he never hesitated when he got the chance to buy the Crest Theatre in Westwood.

"Everything I own is in this place," he said standing in the lobby while about a dozen people watched "The Rookie" on a Monday afternoon. "I'm not going to go poor, but I don't own stock anymore. This is my rainy day now."

Bucksbaum, who owns box office tracking service ReelSource Inc., put down the money to continue building his dream of perpetuating the single-screen movie theater.

The Crest opened in 1939 and its last significant facelift came in 1988 from Walt Disney Co. and Pacific Theatres Corp., which still operates the venue. Bucksbaum won't say if there plans for further renovations.

The building's distinctive art deco fa & #231;ade and sparkling green, orange and yellow marquee is a reminder of Westwood's cinema history. Its interior was designed as an outdoor performance space, complete with art deco stylized light towers and garden wall elements. High on its walls are scenes of 1930s Hollywood landmarks.

The 40-year-old Bucksbaum, a Westwood resident who grew up in Kingston, Penn., said he snagged the 465-seat Crest because other bidders were going to change its use. Five bidders all offered $3.2 million, the asking price, according to Brad Stone, president of Stone Co. and the broker representing the seller, Icarus LLC.

Icarus, holding company of an unidentified L.A. investor, bought the building for $1.7 million in July 2001. Icarus had planned to convert the building into either a nightclub or live theater, but community opposition and property appreciation persuaded the investor not to go ahead, and the property was flipped.

Proposals from other bidders included a Persian swap meet, a church and an adult film venue, according to Stone.

Movies a must

"I couldn't stomach it," Bucksbaum said of the idea that the Crest would become something other than a movie theater. "I wouldn't want to live in Westwood if this theater was gone."

Bucksbaum started taking notes at movies when he was 10, tracking which films would appeal to his friends. It was the germ of ReelSource, which tracks box office receipts on what's playing well and where.

He attended a number of colleges, and was graduated from the University of Heidelberg after four years in the Army as a paratrooper and intelligence officer. He moved to Los Angeles in 1986 and started working for Exhibitor Relations, another theater tracking company, ending up as half-partner. He left to start ReelSource in 1994.

The Crest is Bucksbaum's second theater purchase. Nearly two years ago he bought the dilapidated Empire Theater in Kern County for $150,000 including land and parking. Bucksbaum, an avid fly fisherman, came across the theater, which he's since renamed Reel Cinema, on his frequent outings to the Kern River.

"It was a test to see if I could practice what I preach," he said, adding that running a theater gives him more credibility when he writes for and about other operators.

Jim Tharp, head of distribution at DreamWorks SKG, said the single-screen exhibition space is an endangered species because of the superior economics of the multiplex.

"I think passion is the right word for his interest in movies," Tharp said. "He really has a passion for all movies old movies, new movies that made him want to experience the entire business."

Icarus has agreed to finance the sale by carrying a note for $1.7 million, better than 50 percent of the purchase price. "We don't want the theater back, but he'd have been hard-pressed to find financing," Stone said.

Neither Pacific nor Bucksbaum would comment on revenues. Exhibitors generally receive a portion of the ticket price, with the bulk of their revenues from concessions.

Bucksbaum said he is looking for other investors and plans to press his case by showing them the potential for returns at a single-screen theater. "I want to be the savior of the single-screen," he said, adding that the hope is investors would seek other sites to rescue.

Still unclear is whether Bucksbaum will wind up running the place. Pacific Theaters has a lease there through the end of 2002 and Bucksbaum is very happy with the way things are run now.

"That's wonderful," said Lila Rioth, board member with the Westwood Homeowners Association. "The movie theaters south of Wilshire have always been important to the businesses and restaurants along that stretch."

Rioth said business at restaurants along Westwood Boulevard remains good during the workweek, but has been suffering on weekends since the United Artists cinema at Westwood Boulevard and Wellworth Avenue closed in February.

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