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Movie Theaters in Santa Monica Take A Trip Back to the Future

Frank Gruber for City Council





Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pico Business Improvement District
7th Annual Pico Festival
Sunday, October 28th

By Jorge Casuso

October 29, 2012 -- Twenty-two years ago, when AMC opened a multi-screen theater on the newly built Third Street Promenade, the state-of-the-art theater was hailed as one of the most ambitious projects in the operator’s nearly 30-year history.

The AMC Santa Monica 7 -- which joined the new Cineplex Odeon movie complex (now AMC Broadway 4) and the newly converted Mann Criterion 6 -- helped transform the struggling Santa Monica Mall into a bustling international destination.

Crowds flocked to the new Third Street Promenade to watch movies in 17 auditoriums that showcased the latest in sight and sound. Before and after the screenings, they frequented the restaurants and shops and took in the street performers popping up on the outdoor strip.

“Theaters have been an integral part of the mix in Downtown Santa Monica,” said Kathleen Rawson, CEO of Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM). “Theaters draw pedestrians who then visit stores and restaurants.

“One of the key reasons to come to Downtown Santa Monica when the Promenade opened was the movies,” Rawson said. “And movies are still an important reason to come Downtown today.”

But the old movie houses -- along with the four-screen Laemmle art house on 2nd Street -- have long lost their luster. Since the three theaters helped pump new life into a dying Third Street two decades ago, no new theaters have been built in the beachside city, where a 1987 law restricts their construction in Downtown.

None of the existing venues boast the IMAX screens, stadium seating and plush lobbies featured in the complexes cropping up in neighboring communities, which may explain the 30 percent decrease in attendance at Downtown theaters in the past decade.

“The major issue is that not long after Santa Monica’s theaters were built, you had stadium seating,” said Robert O. York, a consultant for DTSM, Inc. “You can upgrade the sound, the projection systems and bring in 3-D, but you can’t recreate the stadium seating experience.

“The lobby, the layout of the restrooms, a lot of it has come a long way,” said York, who admits it’s been “months and months” since he’s seen a movie in Santa Monica, which “is not as high on the list” as the newer neighboring venues.

“This is Santa Monica, we’re in the middle of the movie industry, and we’re not living up to the potential here,” York said.

Twenty-two years after helping fuel the Promenade’s success, AMC -- which currently owns the three theaters on the Promenade -- is poised to build a new state-of-the-art complex on 4th Street.

It also plans to revitalize the AMC 7, which will likely be “completely redone and modernized,” said John Warfel, president of Metropolitan Pacific Capital, which is partnering with AMC on the project.

“It’s a matter of bringing new state-of-the-art theaters and putting Santa Monica back on the map,” said Warfel. The new complex “will activate 4th Street and spread the movie crowd throughout the Downtown.

“It will add patrons,” said Warfel. “The city needs to regain its position as a place to go and see movies in a prime theater.”

The Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the proposed project is scheduled to be released this fall, followed by a 45-day comment period, said Roxanne Tanemori, the senior planner for the City in charge of the project.

After planning officials respond to the comments, the DEIR and a proposed Development Agreement (DA) will be presented to the Planning Commission early next year, before it goes to City Council for final approval.

The proposed theater includes the modern perks of 3-D and IMAX technology, along with stadium seating, state-of-the-art projection technology and top-of-the-line theater sound systems, according to a report from City staff.

The proposal calls for approximately 2,000 seats and 12 screens in a 75,000-square-foot-building, which would feature a variety of auditoriums, including a 440-seat IMAX venue and reserved stadium seating. The project also would offer “enhanced” food and beverage, terraces, and a full-service restaurant and bar, Warfel said.

The theater complex would replace Parking Structure 3 on 4th Street between Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue. Construction is expected to start after the completion of Parking Structure 6 at 2nd Street between Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard, which will have more than 700 spaces.

The new complex will put Santa Monica back on the map as a movie destination, Warfel said. It will be competitive with the state-of-the-art offerings at the Grove in Los Angeles, The Howard Hughes Center in Westchester, the Westside Pavillion in West LA and in Downtown Culver City.

It also could help stave off competition from the AMC complex in neighboring Marina del Rey, which is being rebuilt as a restaurant-movie theater that is part of the $25 million Villa Marina Marketplace redevelopment.

“We don’t have much in the way of large auditoriums Downtown, and this will take care of a big chunk of the problem,” York said. “It’s also a fundamental piece of activating the street and keeping the Downtown vibrant and competitive.”

While other venues have eclipsed Santa Monica when it comes to the size of the screens or the use of the latest technology, they have failed to offer the eclectic urban experience found on the Promenade, said former Mayor Dennis Zane.

It was Zane who suggested the law restricting theaters to Downtown, and it is Zane who remains one of the biggest champions of the Promenade as the best venue to catch a movie and enjoy the overall experience.

“When I go to a movie, I go not just for the film but for the evening, and what’s going on around is important,” Zane said. “If there was a bigger screen, my issue would be what’s the movie experience.

“My son and his friends go to movies at the Promenade exclusively for the same reason. They like the scene, the area,” Zane said. “I love to go to the movies on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It’s a magical time on the street.”

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