LISA STEEN PROCTOR Staff Reporter
The Eagle Theater in Eagle Rock can thank Winston Evans and Bill Barsocchini for its new lease on life.
Evans and Barsocchini did not want to see the 1929-vintage movie house sink into disrepair or be converted to a megaplex with tiny screens. So they bought the grand old theater last August, with the goal of restoring it to its former grandeur.
“We’d love to make millions but we’re in it as a labor of love,” Evans said.
Evans said that the theater which runs movies after they’ve had their first run at newer cinemas is not making money, but is staying afloat because of a flexible landlord and the anticipation of the busy summer months.
To film buffs and preservationists, the effort by Evans and Barsocchini to save a theater is noble and increasingly rare.
Just last December, the circa 1923 Bijou Theater in Hermosa Beach closed its doors. The Bijou had long ago made the transition from first-run movies to art house films, but even that wasn’t enough to keep it open.
Despite their historical value, especially in a city where entertainment is king, only a handful of old theaters remain. Many have been converted into offices, retail space or simply boarded up.
The reason? Simple economics, said Jeff Engler, senior manager at Deloitte & Touche LLP, whose clients include theater owners and entertainment production and distribution companies.
“People will drive further for larger variety, stadium seating and more variety in concessions, taking away theater traffic from three areas that might have been serviced by single screen theaters,” said Engler.
As a result, small theaters have a harder time getting the movies that make money, said Engler.
“Distributors who look at per-screen dollars are not likely to send a film to single screen theaters,” he said.
Small theater owners recognize the problems but say that they are filling a need not likely to be met by megaplexes.
“We run a niche operation by showing art, foreign and American independent films,” said Jay Reisbaum, real estate manager for Laemmle Theatres, which owns eight theaters in L.A., three of which are old single-screen theaters. “But it is a very difficult operation even for us to maintain.”
Reisbaum said that the company would not consider buying any more single screen theaters as an operation, only as the potential to convert them into multiplexes.
In fact, Laemmle currently is in negotiations to re-open the Bijou, probably as a triplex, said Reisbaum.
Other theater owners continue to take their chances despite the clear economic obstacles, often out of an appreciation for old theaters.
Cecchi Gori, an Italian producer and owner of Italy’s largest theater chain, re-opened the Fine Arts theater in Beverly Hills three years ago after putting it through a major renovation.
Gori “owns it because he loves it and is committed to showing European films,” said Anna Gross, vice president of Cecchi Gori Pictures.
Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, hopes that more such theaters will receive a similar infusion of capital, possibly from major studios looking to do what Disney did with Hollywood’s El Capitan.
“We feel strongly that the historic movie houses should be preserved. They are significant both architecturally and culturally,” said Dishman.
Dishman is particularly concerned with three large theaters on Broadway in downtown L.A.
Bruce Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theatres Corp., which operates the theaters the Orpheum, State and Palace theaters holds out little hope.
“Barring city involvement, the theaters will close. The only thing that keeps them open now is rental income from filming,” said Corwin, who notes that the 1,000 to 2,000 seat theaters play to less than 100 people a day.