Since the November night in 1963 when the Cinerama Dome opened its doors with the premiere of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” — drawing Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett and Ethel Merman to the sidewalks of Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood — the theater, and the multiplex that later rose around it, has been a home for people who liked to watch movies and people who liked to make movies.
Its distinctive geodesic dome, memorialized by Quentin Tarantino in the 2019 film “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” has become more retro than futuristic over the years, a reminder of a Technicolor past. Yet through it all, the complex known as the ArcLight Hollywood remained a cinephile favorite, with no commercials, no latecomers admitted and ushers who would, after introducing the upcoming show, promise to stay behind to make sure the sound and picture were “up to ArcLight standards.”
But today the ArcLight Hollywood is closed, both a victim of the coronavirus pandemic and a symbol of a movie industry in turmoil, even in its own backyard.
“There was nothing like the ArcLight — I was really surprised they closed,” said Amy Aquino, an actor who played Lt. Grace Billets in the television show “Bosch” and who had been drawn by the theater’s serious approach to moviegoing since seeing “Sideways” there in 2004.
Her husband, Drew McCoy, said he now worried every time he passed the abandoned complex. “It’s too strange that a pre-eminent structure that was once killing it is sitting there like a white elephant,” he said.
The shuttered complex — its entrance marked by plywood boards instead of movie posters — stands as a reminder of the great uncertainty that now shadows old-fashioned cinema in American culture. Dual strikes have shut down production. Competition from streaming services, as well as shortened attention spans in a smartphone era, has led movie theaters around the nation to shut their doors.
The record-shattering box office for “Barbie” and the strong showing for “Oppenheimer” this summer gave a beleaguered industry hope after what had been a long, slow decline in moviegoing, accelerated by the pandemic. But other big-budget would-be blockbusters have been humbled by soft ticket sales, and the lingering strike has prompted some studios to delay major releases. The fundamental challenges to theatergoing have not gone away, and the boarded-up ArcLight is a daily reminder of that.
“Times are sad,” said Bill Counter, a cinema historian who has documented the history of the ArcLight. “The theaters that survive will be those that make filmgoing an event by offering the sort of amenities that made ArcLight a destination originally.”
It is only fitting the ArcLight has become a Los Angeles mystery, the subject of speculation that befits a movie theater that was always more than just another neighborhood cinema.
When the company that owns the ArcLight, the Decurion Corp., applied for a liquor license last year, movie fans seized on even that slight bit of movement as a sign that coming attractions might not be far behind. And executives at Decurion, which closed 11 ArcLight theaters across the country as part of a bankruptcy reorganization, have assured theater preservation groups that they will not walk away from what was known as the ArcLight Hollywood. But it has remained closed.
“Everybody has been hoping it was on the verge of reopening,” Counter said. “Periodically things leak out. You hear about an architecture firm. It would be lovely to think about reopening for its 60th anniversary, which would be November.”
“Everyone loves it,” he added. “Filmmakers want to go there. It will reopen. They are just taking their time.”
But Decurion continues to offer little insight into its intentions. “Thank you for reaching out,” Ted Mundorff, a senior executive with Decurion, said by email. “We are not commenting on the Hollywood property.”
There has been some encouraging news recently for film enthusiasts in Los Angeles. The New Beverly Cinema, a revival movie house that Tarantino took over in 2014, reopened in June 2021 after being shut down because of Covid-19. Its motto: “All Shows Presented in Glorious 35 mm (unless noted in 16 mm).” Vidiots, the landmark store that closed in 2017 in Santa Monica, reopened in the old Eagle Theater in June, renting videos and showing a rich array of old movies. And a 12-screen multiplex opened this summer at Hollywood Park, across the way from the new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.
The concern about the ArcLight’s future is unfolding in a city where landmarks and institutions can disappear overnight in a burst of construction dust. Amoeba Music, a revered record store a block away from the ArcLight, recently bowed to the demands of a developer and abandoned its building for a new complex on Hollywood Boulevard. (“The building may be new, but Amoeba’s personality shines throughout,” its website promises.)
“People have every right to be cautious when something closes in L.A.,” said Tiffany Nitsche, the president of the board of directors of the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation. “We lose things so fast.”
The murkiness of the deliberations has fed the concern. “I don’t know what they are doing,” said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor who “went all the time” when he lived 10 minutes away in the Hollywood Hills. “If they are bringing it back, I’d like to be a part of it. Why wouldn’t we want to restore that beautiful place?”
The Cinerama Dome, a geodesic dome modeled after a Buckminster Fuller design, rises like a 70-foot-high golf ball along Sunset Boulevard. As an officially designated Los Angeles cultural monument, the Dome is protected, which means it would be difficult — though not impossible — to knock it down for, say, an office building.
“It’s very iconic,” said Linda Dishman, the president of the Los Angeles Conservancy.
In 2002, the Dome expanded with the addition of an adjacent three-level 14-screen multiplex. Those theaters in particular drew a discriminating audience who appreciated the top-of-the-line sound and picture (and were willing to pay the premium prices). It was rare to hear anyone talk once the lights down, much less spot anyone sneaking a text. The coming attractions before the feature film were kept relatively short, and never cluttered by on-screen advertisements for, say, Coca-Cola. It became a popular place for premieres.
Hugo Soto-Martinez, whose Los Angeles City Council district includes the ArcLight, said his constituents regularly press him on what was going on with the theater; he is as mystified as everyone else.
Nitsche said that for all the mystery, she remained certain the ArcLight would be back. “We’ve watched theaters struggle for the last two years,” she said. “I’m not sure anyone is jumping to get back into that game.”
“But I can’t imagine the ArcLight not reopening,” she said. “ I just don’t know when.”
Nicole Sperling contributed reporting from Los Angeles.