Los Angeles gave the theater to the American Cinematheque in the ’90s. Now, its sale to Netflix has ruffled concerns over its programming and historic status.
Netflix now owns one of Hollywood Boulevard’s historic gems, the Egyptian Theatre. Officially, seller American Cinematheque is cheering the move as one that will help continue the preservation of the silent-era movie palace. But critics are raising concerns that the property — originally gifted to the nonprofit by the city — will now be subjected to the whims of a corporation after the sale, which was completed with minimal public input.
Netflix shared the news in a press release Friday. The sale, the amount of which was not disclosed, will allow the American Cinematheque to autonomously program the theater Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, while Netflix will pay for renovations, including sound upgrades, and use the space for special events, screenings, and premieres during the week.
The sale comes amid years of financial struggles for the Cinematheque. Chairman Rick Nicita told the Los Angeles Times the organization was quickly approaching a “crisis point.”
For its part, Netflix now has a Los Angeles location to showcase films during awards season, and the news comes after the streamer saved New York’s Paris Theatre from closure in August 2019.
But beneath the platitudes offered by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials in the Netflix release lie a lot of questions.
After community outcry saved it from destruction in the 1970s, the 1922 theater saw its walls crumble and false-hieroglyphic tiles smashed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It was sold by United Artists Theatres the following year to the city for $1.53 million and given historic monument status.
The city in 1996 sold it to the American Cinematheque for $1, under the condition that it be renovated as a cornerstone of an effort to revitalize a then-rundown central Hollywood. The theater rehab in excess of $12 million was funded in part by the city, federal government, the National Endowment for the Arts, Miramax, the former Time Warner, and individuals, according to reports at the time.
Since its 1998 reopening, the nonprofit has screened repertory programming at the theater, which has serious film-preservation bona fides. In 2016, it became one of only four U.S. theaters equipped to handle nitrate prints.
Given the amount of public investment in the theater as a center of cultural programming, local historian Richard Schave says there should have been more public involvement in the aim of transparency.
“The American Cinematheque exists due to the gift of millions of dollars in public money and countless community volunteer hours. Without both, the earthquake-damaged Egyptian Theatre would likely have been demolished,” said Schave, who operates Esotouric, a company that specializes in offbeat and in-depth tours of Los Angeles. “Instead, it was restored with public funds and placed in the public trust, with the American Cinematheque permitted to act as the public steward, of the space and of the mission to program repertory film in Hollywood.
“All this work, money, and love puts a tremendous burden on the nonprofit board to practice good stewardship and to act in the best interest of the organization’s mission, and as representatives of the members. Instead, the board appears to be acting in the interest of a corporation, and is keeping the membership and community in the dark.”
Nearly 2,800 people have signed the most recent petition Schave co-authored, “urging the board of the American Cinematheque to hold a public meeting, explain the problems facing the troubled nonprofit, halt any potential sale of the Egyptian Theatre and be transparent about its plans moving forward.”
Schave and others have spoken out against the sale for months, including appearing at a City Council meeting in August. Though the sale required government approval — due to the unique nature of how the Cinematheque came to own the theater — Schave said there has been no meaningful discussion of the matter in public meetings.
The Cinematheque, in a statement, said it has satisfied the requirements of the state Attorney General’s office and two Los Angeles public agencies, leading the entities to approve the sale. But representatives did not immediately answer IndieWire’s questions about specifics of those conditions, the sale amount, and the nature of the Cinematheque’s agreement with Netflix. It’s unclear if the nonprofit will be able to continue using the theater as its home in perpetuity.
Some of that information is available through public records. The AG’s office, the city’s redevelopment successor agency, and the Los Angeles County Development Authority did not immediately return information requests.
In an interview last year, Ken Bernstein, principal city planner of LA’s Office of Historic Resources, said there are rules around the theater’s modification because it is both an individual landmark and a part of the national Hollywood Boulevard historic district.
Public review would be required for any major proposed physical changes, specifically ones that would modify components of the theater that led to its historic designation in the first place, he said. But Netflix has not indicated any plans for those types of modifications.
Meanwhile, cinephiles are concerned that the sale will mean less of the programming they’ve come to expect from the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian. It has long been home to studio premieres and other non-Cinematheque events. The nonprofit in a tweet said it expects it will actually be able to increase its offerings, including additional weekend daytime screenings, and events and educational screenings for schools.