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Laemmle Chain Exploring Sale of at Least One Theater (EXCLUSIVE)

Greg Laemmle
Courtesy of Greg Laemmle

Laemmle Theatres is considering unloading at least one of its theaters that has been sitting idle for the past four months amid the pandemic-induced shutdown.

The Claremont 5 theater has already been put up for sale and the company is mulling shopping one or more of the six other theaters the 82-year-old business owns and operates in California, according to CEO Greg Laemmle.

“The only lifeline that we have as a company is that we happen to own a lot of our dirt, the theaters where we are located,” he said in an interview on the latest episode of the Variety podcast “Strictly Business.” “So we are looking at options for selling maybe even in this market.”

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Like many exhibitors large and small nationwide, Laemmle Theatres has been out of commission since March, forcing the company to lay off nearly all of approximately 200 full-time and part-time employees. Relief may not be coming anytime soon: With COVID-19 surging in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered movie theaters to remain shuttered for at least three more weeks in 19 counties as of July 1.

“We’re hanging by a thread,” said Laemmle. “If we can’t reopen at some point relatively soon, it’s going to be difficult because certain expenses just continue.”

Already struggling to shake off periods of poor ticket sales in recent years on top of the current financial squeeze, the company is seeking a buyer for its theater in Claremont, Calif.. Built in 2007, the five-screen venue is being priced at almost $6.5 million. The theaters aren’t likely to fetch their previous value in a depressed marketplace.

While Claremont 5 is the only location officially for sale, Laemmle noted he is exploring the possibility of selling at least one of his other theaters, though declined to specify which of his other holdings he is considering selling.

Laemmle could also end up opting not to sell, as he did last year after he put his entire business up for sale last summer, only to reconsider the decision in November 2019. That choice may prove costly.

“Obviously we made what we thought was the right decision at the time,” he said. “It turned out to be a not-such-a-great decision. But what are you going to do?”

Laemmle made clear he is not looking to unload all of his holdings like he was last year. “We’re not selling the business, we’re not selling the brand, we’re not selling all our locations,” said Laemmle. “But if we have to, there is a route of liquidity that helps us getting through by selling one, by selling two.”

Laemmle did end up closing one of his properties, Music Hall in Beverly Hills, last year. Construction was completed on an eighth Laemmle theater in Newhall, Calif., but has yet to open. Other Laemmle-owned theaters include locations in Santa Monica, Pasadena and Encino.

Parting with properties is a decision that does not come lightly to Laemmle, given his family-run business goes back three generations; his grandfather Max, cousin to Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, started the business in Highland Park in 1938. But he also noted that Laemmle Theatres has been forced to retrench at other difficult times in its history, only to bounce back.

While his faith in theatergoing remains despite the proliferation of streaming movies in U.S. homes, he also realizes the arthouse business may never return to the heights it once enjoyed. “I do believe that moviegoing will return, that people will enjoy the experience, that its inherently different than watching a movie from home,” he remarked. “But there’s still going to be changes in the numbers.”

Strictly Business” is Variety‘s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. A new episode debuts each Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud.