The online streaming service is going decidedly old school with its purchase of the legendary Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. The historic movie palace is nearly a century old, dating back to 1922 when movies were silent. What may seem like an odd pairing could actually be both a win-win situation while helping preserve and promote Hollywood history as well as modern experimental filmmaking.
Here’s the Deal
Financial terms were not released by either Netflix nor American Cinematheque, the organization that originally bought the historic venue from the city of Los Angeles in 1996 for one dollar in exchange for restoring and preserving it. It is reportedly value in the tens of millions of dollars. It was announced that Netflix would be providing a much-needed influx of cash to help maintain and operate the theater. Rick Nicita, the chairman of American Cinematheque was quoted as saying, “We get improved programming at a renovated theater. Programming doesn’t suffer, the programming only gets better. The theater doesn’t suffer, the theater gets better.”
Last year, the streamer showcased its movie The Irishman at the Egyptian so it could be considered for Oscar nominations under the Academy of Motion Picture’s Rule Two. As we reported last month, the Academy has temporarily waived Rule Two which requires a “film be shown in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a theatrical qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days, during which period screenings must occur at least three times daily.” Netflix plans on using the venue for special screenings and movie premieres. Clearly Netflix is in this for the long run as part of its effort to become an increasingly major player in the movie business. It gives them a high-profile location in the heart of the industry that allows them to showcase new talent as well as its high-budget content in a place where it is guaranteed to garner millions in free publicity.
In addition to Netflix putting on occasional events and theatrical releases of its productions, American Cinematheque will continue to program its screenings and events on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The organization may also be able to leverage its improved cash flow by flying in filmmakers for its signature Q&A’s and film festivals rather than relying on catching them while they’re in town on other business.
On its website, American Cinematheque describes itself as “a Los Angeles based non-profit, member-supported cultural organization dedicated exclusively to the public presentation of the moving image in all its forms.” The organization operates both the Egyptian and the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica and operates as a year-round film festival dedicated to showing both classic films and experimental movies while providing a forum for live discussions between filmmakers and the public. American Cinematheque had been experiencing recent financial struggles, and the closure of theaters due to COVID-19 only made things worse. Negotiations for this deal had begun in August of 2019 as the organization was eyeing costly repairs to keep the Egyptian operational.
Like an Egyptian
The theater itself, located at 6706 Hollywood Blvd., was one of three built by legendary showman Sid Grauman along with local real estate developer Charles Toberman. The El Capitan, which is now owned by Disney and used for its film premieres, was built four years later in 1926 and the world-famous Chinese opened a year later. Where the El Capitan was a “legitimate theater” showing stage productions, both the Egyptian and Chinese were designed as movie palaces – in the literal sense of the term – from the start. Originally intended to have a Spanish theme, the years-long search for the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter had lead to a public fascination with Egyptology which lead to a design change and the Egyptian was completed in an “Egyptian Revival” motif, opening two weeks after Carter discovered the tomb.
In October of 1922, it became the site of the first-ever Hollywood premiere for Douglas Fairbank’s Robin Hood. Appropriately enough, Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments debuted at the Egyptian in 1923, 33 years before the Charlton Heston version. In an era long before the advent of VCRs, let alone on-demand streaming, the Egyptian showed only four movies over its first three years of operations, with Robin Hood running for nearly six months. Each film performance was preceded by a short, but elaborate, live stage show.
After the Chinese opened, becoming the venue for Hollywood premieres, the Egyptian became a second-run movie house. However, in 1944, it became the location where MGM debuted its films. It was updated with the large, curved “Todd A-O” screen which allowed widescreen 70mm movies in 1955. This was for the debut of Oklahoma, and while it kept the theater relevant, its installation destroyed the original Egyptian-themed proscenium arch and the Wurlitzer organ was likely removed at this time as well.
The now venerable theater was the site of many premieres of now legendary Hollywood genre films, including Ridley Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s film Alien in 1979, and the third film to be released in the George Lucas cycle of films, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, in 1983.
With the decline of Hollywood Boulevard in the 1980s and early 90s, the Egyptian suffered and closed in 1992. It languished in disrepair for four years until Los Angeles’ Community Redevelopment Agency made an agreement with American Cinematheque to restore it and resume operations as a movie theater. The original cost to build the Egyptian was $800,000, which was the equivalent of $7.7M in 1998 when it reopened after a $12.8M renovation.
The Egyptian was originally built with a single auditorium seating 1,760 audience members. When it was restored, this was reduced to 616 seats and a second screening room seating 78 was added. Many of the original decorative elements were incorporated into the two new theaters while the exterior was extensively restored to its 1922 appearance. The larger theater retained the original sunburst design on the ceiling. A second, smaller theater was built downstairs and was named for Steven Spielberg who helped finance it, and it is devoted to experimental filmmaking. Both theaters still continue to use 35mm and 70mm film, with the larger theater also being equipped to operate the very volatile nitrate film used in early filmmaking, allowing rare treasures unavailable in any other format to be shown – often for the first time in half a century. American Cinematheque also offers docent-led tours of the theater – which of course are on hold during the pandemic.
The Egyptian has been a key part in the revival of Hollywood Blvd., that has greatly cleaned it up since its run-down appearance was showcased in Charles Bronson’s 1982 Deathwish II. Netflix’ investment ensures that it will continue to be an important, ongoing part of Hollywood’s glitz and glamor.