Pacific Theatres Shutters: Who Will Rescue the Cinerama Dome?

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock
Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutters

The workers at the ArcLight Hollywood have been on furlough for more than a year, and have been waiting eagerly for the venue to reopen. On Monday, they got word that the theater would remain closed permanently.

“It’s just sad,” said one of the employees, who asked not to be identified. “We’re just waiting for more details.”

So is everyone else.

Pacific Theatres announced that it would permanently close all of its ArcLight and Pacific locations, which included a dozen theaters in Southern California as well as a handful in Boston, Chicago and near Washington, D.C. It did not explain the reasons for the decision or lay out what might happen to the theaters.

The announcement led to an outpouring of grief on social media, as movie lovers took to Facebook and Twitter to share memories of visiting various ArcLight or Pacific venues over the years, often tweeting pictures to memorialize the occasions. On Tuesday, one fan even left a bouquet of flowers in front of the ArcLight’s Hollywood location as if to acknowledge the end of an era.

The move also stunned studio executives and rivals in the exhibition space, partly because it left so many unanswered questions. Some wondered why ArcLight and Pacific wouldn’t file for bankruptcy, following in the steps of Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Drafthouse, both of which are using Chapter 11 as a way to get control of their debt.

The ArcLight’s Hollywood theater — with its Cinerama Dome — is considered to be the biggest prize and would draw the most interest from prospective buyers if it is truly on the block.

There are some rumblings that Christopher Forman, president of Decurion, the theaters’ parent company, might continue to operate that venue. In that scenario, he might enlist other investors or reposition it to be even more of a Hollywood-centric institution than it already is. The cinema currently hosts many filmmaker Q&A’s and special screenings for Oscars and awards voters, and the thought is that could continue to be a viable business.

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Should the Forman family opt to sell the theater, there are a number of potential buyers. Most companies have yet to be approached about a sale. On Twitter, there was widespread optimism that Netflix might swoop in and buy the theater, a rescue operation similar to its decision to buy the Paris Theatre in New York City or the Egyptian in Los Angeles.

It’s unclear if the ArcLight would be a similarly attractive target for the streamer or if the maintenance and upkeep would be too burdensome and too far afield from its core business of selling monthly subscriptions. That could leave some other deep-pocketed cinephile as a possible savior, such as Charles Cohen, who snapped up the Quad and the Landmark chain in recent years. Buyers looking to interest institutional investors might face headwinds as the financial markets are not likely to extend capital to a business that as precarious as exhibition in the pandemic era.

There’s a great deal of skepticism among industry insiders that a major chain such as a Regal/Cineworld or AMC would be interested in the Hollywood venue. Those companies are struggling to stay solvent and don’t have the money to buy new locations. Cinemark has a cleaner balance sheet, but it too may not want to overextend itself until the box office bounces back, something studios privately don’t think will happen until late summer or fall. An acquisition by one of the major circuits might also raise antitrust concerns.

Another possibility is that the Alamo Drafthouse could make a play for the venue when it reemerges from bankruptcy. As part of the filing, the theater chain took on new equity investment from Altamont Capital Partners and affiliates of Fortress Investment Group, and in a recent interview with Variety, Alamo’s founder Tim League said the exhibitor wanted to continue growing its footprint.

ArcLight did have several venues which were underperforming before the pandemic brought moviegoing to a standstill, including its locations in Boston and Santa Monica.

Christopher Forman’s grandfather, William Forman, founded the company as a chain of drive-ins in 1946. He built the Cinerama Dome in 1963, in what was envisioned to be the first of a chain of low-cost geodesic theaters. The family is seen as being civic-minded, with deep ties to the city of Los Angeles. The Formans were widely respected for the low-key way they conducted their business and their commitment to philanthropy.

But there have been tensions in the past. William Forman’s heir, Michael, proposed redeveloping the dome in the late 1990s, prompting a backlash from preservationists and film buffs. The dome was ultimately declared a citywide historic monument, meaning that any change would have to be reviewed by the city’s planning department.

Any move to alter it or repurpose it now would likely face similar opposition.

“We have heard a lot of people really love the Cinerama Dome and love watching movies there,” said Linda Dishman, president and CEO of the L.A. Conservancy. “If in fact Pacific Theatres is choosing not to operate as a theater anymore, hopefully there will be a buyer that will choose to continue to show movies in the Cinerama Dome.”

Robert P. Silverstein, a land use attorney who has fought many preservation battles in Hollywood, said he also hoped that the dome would continue to show movies.

“The Cinerama is a huge star in Hollywood’s architectural pantheon,” Silverstein said. “With Hollywood history constantly under assault from irresponsible developers and politicians, preserving the theater as a functioning venue is all the more important.”

Doug Haines, who led the Friends of Cinerama in the 1990s, said he assumed the venue would be turned over to a new operator.

“It’s basically been probably the most successful exhibition venue in Los Angeles,” he said. “It was in great demand before the pandemic. I doubt that would change, but who knows. You never know in Hollywood.”

Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who represents Hollywood, noted in a statement that the Cinerama Dome is a city-designated historic landmark, and said the city “stands at the ready to help protect this beloved resource.”

“The closure of Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres is very disappointing, especially as the City of Los Angeles continues to make strides toward fully reopening,” O’Farrell said. “I, along with many of my constituents, will miss meeting a friend and seeing a movie at the Arclight. The historic features of the Cinerama Dome make it an iconic building in Hollywood, and a flagship theatre for any operator.”

Pacific Theatres owns the Hollywood property, but leases other locations. Over the last year, the company has been in litigation with two of its landlords, in Culver City and Santa Monica, over unpaid rent. In the Culver City case, the company argued that a local pandemic shutdown order meant that the landlord could not enforce the terms of the lease. Both cases are ongoing.