Why ArcLight Hollywood Was More Than a Movie Theater

A quiet and empty Cinerama Dome of the ArcLight Cinemas (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/LA Times via Getty Images

On Monday, Deadline reported that ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters would close down permanently. Quickly, filmmakers, fans, and former employees took to Twitter to publicly mourn the loss, with reactions ranging from stand-alone expletives to sorrow to denial — and also some priceless remembrances.

While Pacific and ArcLight theaters were far from the first — or most tragic — casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, the closings still delivered an unexpected blow to movie fans. ArcLight Hollywood employees who had been laid off when the theater shut down last March had, as recently as a month ago, been told by management that the theater planned to reopen when doing so became profitable once more. So when employees learned of the closure from Monday’s Deadline article, some, like crew member Sarah Gwen, described feeling “blindsided.” “We were all Snapchatting in a group, ‘Is this real?’” added former host Nick Earl.

As much as it hurts to abruptly find out that you’ll be unemployed (now more than ever), what these employees were losing wasn’t just a job — it was a Los Angeles institution and a thriving film community. Opened in 2002, the ArcLight was renowned as a place that brought independent sensibilities to a commercial format, where filmmakers and fans often mingled, and which, with its Cinerama Dome, even contained a bit of history. Within sprawling Los Angeles, the ArcLight Hollywood was centrally located and as such acted as a de facto hub for cinephiles throughout the city.

How ArcLight Became a ‘Temple of Cinema’

Now it’s easy to take some of the ArcLight’s signature policies for granted — assigned seating, no ads, a proactive approach to curbing disturbances — but when the theater first opened, these features were far from widespread. They were all instituted with the intention of giving moviegoers a premium theatergoing experience — one that justified the $14 price of admission. The theater’s many devotees will tell you it delivered: “I remember the first time going there and trying to figure out what was worth paying those extra bucks for a ticket,” Honey Boy director Alma Ha’rel wrote in an L.A. Times tribute. “It took one visit to understand it’s a temple of cinema.”

The palpable passion and attention to detail extended from the seats up to the screen. The theater prided itself in mastering the technical aspects of film presentation. “There are standards that the studios want the theaters to keep up with, and we made sure to go above and beyond them, with regards to light levels coming out of the projectors and the shape of the image,” said Mike Celestino, a projectionist who worked at ArcLight from 2007 to 2015 (and who now hosts the Star Wars podcast Who’s the Bossk).

And it was this meticulousness that helped make ArcLight a destination for filmmakers themselves. According to Celestino, filmmakers would often come to ArcLight on their films’ opening nights to make sure the theater was playing it right. “Not because they didn’t have faith in us,” Celestino said. “But because they knew everyone was going there and they knew we were capable of playing it right.”

Whether a movie was big or small, the theater made openings feel special, with festive (sometimes inebriated) talent Q&A’s, enthusiastic movie introductions, and the occasional showcasing of costumes from the films. “I’ll always remember there were a bunch of ‘Coming Soon’ posters upstairs, and when we hosted the premiere for Dear White People season one, they’d all been replaced by the Dear White People season one posters,” recalls Dear White People showrunner Jaclyn Moore, an ArcLight regular. “The whole place had a pomp and circumstance to it, and it made you feel like going to a movie was an event.”

In many ways, the theater’s signature innovation, though, was putting employees’ favorite movies on their name tags. Doing so advertised that the staff was made up entirely of film buffs, and it invited moviegoers to strike up conversations with employees. “[At ArcLight,] they were real advocates of hiring movie lovers,” said Gariana Abeyta, a longtime projectionist at the Hollywood location during the theater’s early days. “It was the kind of person you found working at a video-rental place. When they hired me, they made sure I knew about movies.”

‘Summer Camp’ for Young Creatives

Former employees say the common thread of loving movies helped forge a vibrant film community. “One thing that I loved about working at ArcLight was: Everyone I worked with was a young creative like me,” said Nick Earl, an up-and-coming actor. Earl would go on to collaborate with former ArcLight colleagues on a short film, and was actually attending a play reading hosted by another former ArcLight colleague the day Vulture spoke with him. “Working there was like going to summer camp with all these amazing young artists who want to do the same thing I do.”

Celestino recalled getting hired at ArcLight on the heels of going to film school and thinking, “ArcLight was my church and I was becoming a priest.” Employees were able to immerse themselves in film by watching blockbusters, indies, and classics there, and discussing them with fellow fans. But working at ArcLight also had the benefit of putting employees in close proximity to the stars. “You never knew who you were going to run into,” said Abeyta. “It was the place [where] the people who made movies and were in movies liked to see movies.”

The employees Vulture spoke to all had stories of times Hollywood’s A-listers stopped by the theater, but these weren’t the typical celebrity-ogling experiences. At ArcLight, filmmakers and actors — whether there professionally or recreationally — were often eager to geek out about cinema with staff and guests. “When we were showing The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson came in the booth for the testing of the entire thing so he could see,” recalled Abeyta. “And he was just the most gentle, unassuming guy. He knocked on the door and was like, ‘Hi, I’m Paul.’ And he sat there all night and talked movies with us. ”

For Hollywood aspirants, these sorts of experiences made breaking into the industry feel more accessible. “I learned a lot from all the premieres that happened there and the Q&A’s. You get an inside look at how it works behind the curtain,” said café server Sydney Gabel. Like Earl, Gabel made a short film with some of her ArcLight colleagues and was even able to premiere it at the theater. “I got to sign the Green Room [wall], and it was just so special to see it on an actual ArcLight screen with all my co-workers who helped make it.”

Does This Mean We Can’t Have Nice Theaters?

At this point in the pandemic, no loss is entirely unexpected — least of all movie theaters, which were already in a precarious pre-COVID position thanks to the rise of streaming. But because ArcLight was so widely beloved and had carved out such a unique niche, it felt to many that, if any theater would be immune to the twin toll of streaming and COVID, it would be ArcLight. “I know this sadly does happen to the small indie theaters all the time, but I didn’t expect this to be a possibility for us,” said crew member Sarah Gwen. “So that makes me worried for the future of film exhibition.”

While plenty of other theaters remain standing, the loss of unique, beloved ones like ArcLight leaves a significant hole for the community. “I feel that other theaters have been homogenized for a very long time, and that’s why ArcLight was so special,” said Abeyta. “This is a hard blow. People in L.A., they’re kind of winded by this. I know it sounds silly, but it was a special place and L.A. is kind of in mourning.”

Other former employees expressed similar doubts about the future of theatrical moviegoing. But many were encouraged by the swift outcry of love and support for the theater — so much so that they quickly began to fantasize that a buyer would swoop in and, at the very least, save ArcLight Hollywood. “I have high hopes that maybe another movie theater chain will come,” said Gabel. “And if we can preserve building new movie theaters and keeping that alive, maybe it’ll last … I hope.”

Caryn Coleman, the director of programming and special projects at Nitehawk Theaters in Brooklyn, said she was “gutted” by the news of ArcLight’s closing, but that she’s not reading too much into it so far as the future of the industry at large is concerned. “It doesn’t feel like an overwhelming ominous sign to me as so many of our film spaces are still standing,” she wrote to Vulture in an email. “I guess what I’ll be watching out for is what happens six months to a year from now to see the pandemic’s impact on physical spaces. I’m a bit of an optimist, though. I see all of the challenges the film industry is facing as presenting more of an opportunity for evolution rather than our death rattle.”

Still, hope for the future of the industry does little to lessen the sting of this specific loss — and, in particular, of this loss now. With vaccinations becoming widely available, ArcLight’s closing comes just as a return to theaters was within view. “[Before the pandemic] I was expecting to leave ArcLight and enter a new part of my career,” said Gabel. “But I wasn’t expecting it to leave me. I was really hoping to get a drink and go see Cruella soon. That was the one thing about L.A. I was looking forward to after the pandemic — to see all my friends and be there again. So I’m really sad about that. But I’m just trying to remember the fond memories.”

Why ArcLight Hollywood Was More Than a Movie Theater