If you're coming to Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world, then you really should see a movie. And whether you're a tourist or a local, you'd do well to spend an evening or two at every one of these venues. As you will soon read, each one promises much more than just a movie.
- The Academy. You know all those commercials you have to sit through during the Oscars? This is what they pay for. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences runs two theaters: the small one in Hollywood is pretty good, but the large one on Wilshire Blvd. in (or next to) Beverly Hills is the one to visit. The Academy takes great pains to screen the most pristine prints of classic films, and get this: tickets are only $5 each. I have seen such luminaries as Steve Martin and Jack Nicholson come to talk about their work, along with many other notable filmmakers and actors. It's a great deal. The theater is also connected to a gallery space that typically displays classic film posters, props, costumes, photos, etc. Even the parking is good: the Academy has a large free lot, and there's a fair amount of free street parking too. Downsides: There's only one or two screenings per week. And because of the celebrity guests, many events sell out - and the best seats are roped off for the guests and their entourages. That's showbiz!
- Cinefamily. The Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue was a truly unique destination: it showed only silent films, and did so for decades. Tragically, that era came to an end in 1997 when owner Laurence Austin was gunned down in the ticket office by a young hitman hired by Austin's gay lover(!). But the venue was reborn as the non-profit Cinefamily, a rabid bunch of film geeks who book ultra-rare (and ultra-weird) cult films every night. Famous guests and crazy, one-of-a-kind events are also common here. Downsides: The butt-breaking seats. (A recent Kickstarter campaign raised tons of cash to upgrade the seats, among other features.) Also, many of the most enticing shows are members-only, though the $275 annual membership is a good deal if you go twice a month or more.
- American Cinematheque. This is actually two theaters. One is the Egyptian on Hollywood Blvd. One is the Aero way out in Santa Monica. Both are beautiful venues from olden times. The Egyptian, at least, underwent a major renovation and restoration a few years back, when the Cinematheque moved in. Both give you the same experience: one-time only screenings of rare or classic films, five nights a week, often with cast and filmmakers in attendance. Like the Academy, this is a great opportunity to actually see the people who make the movies you love. Downsides: There's almost no such thing as free parking in Hollywood. (Your chances are slightly better at the Aero.) And you have the same problem as with the Academy: beloved films with directors and stars in attendance usually sell out, with Cinematheque members getting first dibs.
- The New Beverly. Do you see a theme? This list is heavy on "revival" theaters - places that don't just show the same stuff you can find at your local multiplex. LA's got a few of these now, including spaces at LACMA and the Hammer Museum. But the New Beverly is the grand dame, having been a destination for second-run art house and cult classic films since 1978. In fact, after previous owner Sherman Torgan died a few years ago, New Beverly fan Quentin Tarantino bought the place. Ever since his takeover (which included a much-needed cleanup and new seats), the theater's hipness factor has risen considerably. Along with the usual double-features that it's long been famous for, the New Bev also programs special screenings and series, midnight movies, and of course "grindhouse night", with kischy '70s exploitation fare. Downside: With popularity comes sold-out shows. So now you gotta make plans in advance if you want to see something cool at the New Bev. I miss those sleepy nights, back in the '90s, when I could just show up and see a couple old 35mm movies for five bucks. It's eight bucks now, but still a great deal for a double feature.
- Grauman's Chinese (the big theater). Probably the most famous theater in Los Angeles, thanks to the famous hand prints in the forecourt, the Chinese has jaw-droppingly gorgeous interiors and a massive screen. This is what seeing a movie is supposed to be like! These days it often hosts world premieres and special screenings of classic films, too. Downsides: Hollywood parking. And considering the significance of the theater, when there's not a special screening, it tends to book the movies that no one wants to see. Always the #2 or #3 film in that week's box office, never the #1. I can't figure out why this is.
- The El Capitan. Right across the street from the Chinese is this Disney-owned movie palace. It was built in 1926 as a live theater, becoming the Paramount cinema in 1942. Disney purchased the place in 1989 and gave it a stunning, museum-quality restoration. As you might expect from the Mouse House, the El Capitan is now impeccably clean, stylish, family-oriented, and detailed down to the inch. Today it plays only current Disney films (though they'll show a classic when the studio has no new movies out), usually paired with elaborate stage shows, exhibits, etc. Downsides: Because of those elaborate stage shows, ticket prices are at a premium (around $16). Plus no free parking. Plus it's Disney movies only.
- Cinespia. The concept was hatched in 2002: Outdoor movie screenings - at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery! Enjoy a film both under and over the stars! (Fortunately, Cinespia has some good taste; crowds gather on a large, grave-free lawn.) Bring a picnic, bring your buddies, relax and have fun. This summertime experience has quickly become an LA institution. Downsides: There are many, alas. Because of the crowds, you have to get there super early and wait in a long line. (Which can be fun if you're with fun people.) For that same reason, parking in the area is a nightmare. And for a $10 "donation", they could charge a little less, considering what they give you: just a projected DVD on the wall of a mausoleum and a usually unwelcome DJ spinning tunes before and after. Finally, screenings are held only on summer weekends. But the mood is always merry and it's certainly a unique thing to do.
- The Vista. The days of the single-screen neighborhood theater are coming to an end in this town. But there's still the Vista in Los Feliz, a hipster neighborhood that has only one other small theater in the vicinity. The Vista is something of a miracle. Built on the former set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, its beautiful 1930s decor features Egyptian-influenced interiors. That's reason enough to go. But wait, there's more! The Vista always books the hottest must-see movie in town (often for just a week or two, before the next top film comes in), yet it's cheaper than any of the other multiplexes in LA. Best of all, it's independently owned and operated! How do they do it? I don't know, but bless 'em. All movie theaters should work like the Vista. Downside: Parking in the neighborhood is next to impossible. This is truly a locals-only place.
- The Last Remaining Seats. Once upon a time, the center of Los Angeles life was downtown. Like many cities, the area became bombed out and abandoned in the '60s, and stayed that way for decades. Though civic leaders have been pumping money into the neighborhood for over 20 years now, it's still struggling to become a nighttime destination again. There are some spectacular artifacts from that golden age, though: the grand old movie theaters on Broadway. The Orpheum, Los Angeles, and Million Dollar Theatres remain closed to the public for much of the year, but they open up, Brigadoon-like, every summer for a tiny handful of very special screenings of classic films. This series, run by the LA Conservancy, is called "The Last Remaining Seats". True to its name, tickets sell out quickly. Downsides: You really only get a couple chances a year to see any of these theaters from the inside (though the Orpheum also has the occasional live concert). And downtown parking bites.