Having returned to Laguna after 10 years in New York City, I’ve been surprised that the small town charm I grew up loving has been now eclipsed by an overwhelming ghost town aesthetic. While the pandemic cannot be discounted here, I am continually astonished by certain groups’ active efforts to purposefully stymie basic town improvement and restoration—the latest attempt being the movie theater downtown.
I have a degree in Film and have worked in entertainment. I care deeply about cinema, its history, and its future. That is why this latest move by the Laguna Beach Historic Preservation Coalition feels like a slap in the face. Nothing is more sad than a rundown theater. For the last five years, the only thing this ramshackle vestige of my childhood has done for the community is gather dust and house a few “temporary residents.” Now, when we have the chance to do something to enliven the structure with something for the community, LBHPC uses the guise of the California Environmental Quality Act to keep another decrepit town landmark in a state of limbo. The irony of using this act against an electric car company should also not be lost.
I wish it could be a movie theater again, I really do. However, the economics are not feasible. Chains face an existential crisis that threatens even the strongest megaplexes, and both consumer demand and exogenous forces have shifted the art-house market to streaming. Theater owners make the bulk of their profits on snacks. Assuming the tepid attendance I remember persists in this new climate, we’d all need to buy our weight in popcorn and Milk Duds nightly to keep it operating.
The Rivian concept is not what I would choose nor what I would do with the space. That being said, they are respecting its history and actually restoring key elements that were lost when it was converted to a two-screen theater. Will it be weird that it also showcases electric cars? Absolutely. But, there is no viable way for it to move forward as a movie theater alone. Disagree? Buy the theater and give it a shot. Take that risk yourself. You’ll find yourself dangling helplessly like a letter falling from the marquee in no time.
If we don’t do something, the ghost of theaters past will continue to loom over Main Beach for years to come. Not very… charming.
Brian Barwick, Laguna Beach