Keeping a movie theater running during the pandemic has been a monumental task, but planning for a new one to open after the pandemic is no picnic either.
That’s the challenge facing Vidiots, the beloved Santa Monica, Calif. video store that closed in 2017 and last year announced plans to restore a vintage movie theater in the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock. The Vidiots Foundation still plans to open a 250-seat theater, café, video store and community hub for all things film-nerdy, with support from high-profile film buffs like Aubrey Plaza, Alex Winter, Rian Johnson, Mark Duplass and Phil Lord.
But as movie theater owners start to optimistically look ahead to COVID-19 vaccines rolling out, Vidiots must first cross the hurdle of city bureaucracy before it can continue with a planned six-month construction period.
On Wednesday, the L.A. city planning commission will hold a call-in hearing to determine if it will relax some of the requirements it has mandated, which executive director Maggie Mackay says are unrealistic, unfeasible and unnecessary. Vidiots is hoping that fans email statements of support in advance of the hearing.
“We were really shocked, we had support from local organizations,” says Mackay of the city’s red tape, “Hundreds of letters poured in to support our plans.”
At the hearing, Vidiots supporter The Eagle Rock Association (TERA) will present its case for why the city’s requirement for a state-licensed security guard and valet parking seven nights a week would be prohibitively expensive and unneeded, and why archaic parking requirements for a building that will have no change-of-use and has operated without parking since 1929 should be relaxed in the age of ridesharing.
“While private security may be common for a bar use, it is entirely uncommon for a community-based theater that will show art-house and repertory films,” read one point in the appeal written by TERA, a local residents’ group.
“The investment of the Vidiots Foundation in restoring this vacant theater is a unique, one-time opportunity to save it from disrepair and demolition,” the appeal continues. It also points out that requiring more parking spaces because a site serves alcohol doesn’t make sense, because it encourages driving after drinking.
Known for its deep selection of movie titles and colorful new wave-style logo, Vidiots was founded by Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber in 1985. The new Vidiots at the Eagle Theater seeks to build on their faithful audience on the other side of town.
“I haunted Vidiots as a member in the late ‘80s and they were one of the first places to support my work as a filmmaker. It’s important for Los Angeles to have the kind of physical and archival presence being launched by the Vidiots Foundation and a lot of us are rallying for this cause,” says Winter.
After becoming a non-profit in 2012, producer Megan Ellison stepped in to help support the store, but though she’s not formally involved with the Vidiots Foundation, she’s “always a Vidiots angel,” says Mackay.
Plaza, who discovered independent film as a teenager working in her aunt’s video store, is counting on a resurgence for theaters, “I do believe there is a future for movie theaters after the pandemic. It’s one of the most social experiences we can all have, to create that kind of mind-meld when we watch with other people.”
“Movies are therapy, movies help people escape and learn,” Plaza says, “A place like Vidiots is so important in that way — an organization that is built to bring people together for the love of movies.”
Mackay points out that the women-led organization would be “enormously additive to this city and culture.” The Northeast Los Angeles area is packed with members of the creative community, but doesn’t offer much in the way of alternative film programming. Los Angeles’ few remaining repertory theaters and film organizations are concentrated near Hollywood (The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian, the New Beverly) or on the Westside (the Nuart, the Aero).
Once it is renovated, the vintage Eagle theater could bring some major pizzazz to a sleepy stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard. But the Los Angeles planning department is notorious for blocking businesses from doing anything new or different – it took years for the Eagle Rock Brewery to get the go-ahead to open the city’s first microbrewery in decades, for example.
The location was first eyed as a café-theater combo by Fred 62 diner’s Fred Eric in the early 2000s. But those plans fell through, and though movie theaters have become something of an endangered species since then, theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse and New York’s Nighthawk Cinema have shown that audiences still appreciate beer, Blu-rays and game nights alongside their cult film screenings.
Mackay says the theater will have a feeling of a real community film center for a very diverse community, “When you attach a video store, the flow of people coming in and out really changes, they get a snack, stay for the movie,” with the chance to see the rarest archival, eclectic and experimental titles, she explains.
While the permitting drama was unfolding, Vidiots Foundation worked to keep its fans connected throughout the pandemic, with a combination of virtual cinema screenings, Zoom trivia sessions and Instagram Live conversations like one for Karina Longworth’s podcast “You Must Remember This” about producer Polly Platt.
Mackay is trying to stay positive while looking ahead to a festive grand opening. “We survived Blockbuster, we have contended with streaming services and seismic technological shifts,” she says, “I feel a certain sense of hopefulness in the air. L.A. wants this.”
“I can’t wait to host screenings there,” says Plaza. “The whole vibe is so fun. I’d rather go there than go to a bar.”
UPDATE 12/10: The L.A. city hearing was successful, and Vidiots got the go-ahead to proceed with renovations without costly and burdensome parking and security requirements.
Our request to remove costly and burdensome conditions on @vidiots was successful! A big thank you to the #EagleRock community for turning out and making your voice heard to support this small non-profit arts organization and neighbor!
— TERA (@TERA90041) December 10, 2020