Movie theaters fueled the city’s downtown renaissance, and now Santa Monica Place is doubling down with a brand-new ArcLight

By Alci Rengifo and Joe Piasecki

The lobby of the new 12-screen ArcLight Cinemas at Santa Monica Place, which officially opens Friday Photo by Paul Turang courtesy of ArcLight Cinemas

The lobby of the new 12-screen ArcLight Cinemas at Santa Monica Place, which officially opens Friday
Photo by Paul Turang courtesy of ArcLight Cinemas

Santa Monica’s downtown wasn’t always a retail and entertainment destination. Back in the 1980s, Third Street Promenade was practically a ghost town. Then came the movie theaters.

In 1986, city officials required that all new movie theaters in Santa Monica be built downtown as part of the public-private partnership to revitalize the promenade. By 1989, four new or significantly upgraded downtown movie theaters were drawing big crowds: the Mann Criterion, a new AMC 7 and AMC Loews, and the Laemmle Monica 4-plex.

These theaters — the ones that are still open, anyway — are no longer the draws they once were, Downtown Santa Monica Inc. CEO Kathleen Rawson said in an interview earlier this year. Not only are they facing competition from Netflix and other Internet streaming services, they haven’t aged well compared to more state-of-the-art competition elsewhere.

“Santa Monica, frankly, hasn’t kept up,” Rawson said. “Most Santa Monicans now are not choosing their own movie theaters, and that’s a problem.”

City leaders are hoping the success of 25 years ago will repeat itself with a brand-new ArcLight Cinemas opening Friday at the Santa Monica Place mall, which has faced an economic lag of its own in recent years.

Gretchen McCourt, ArcLight’s executive vice president of cinematic programming, is confident that the 12-screen theater’s enhanced visitor experience, higher-end dining options and forward-thinking mix of blockbuster and arthouse programming will bring locals back to the big screen.

According to McCourt, a large number of ArcLight Hollywood customers travel there from Santa Monica and the Westside — “particularly the creative community that lives here; they’re some of our best customers,” she said.

“What really sets ArcLight apart is that we focus on the guest experience and try to make it as seamless and pleasant as possible,” McCourt said, noting that all theater seating can be reserved via smartphone and a lack of outside advertising during screenings.” You have to offer an experience that makes people want to leave home. Our customer is definitely more discerning, but [by eliminating wait times] we do play to a strong family audience.”

Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television professor Charles Swanson said that movie theaters are focusing on technology upgrades and enhancing the night-out experience to stay competitive in the age of Netflix — much like the development of cinemascope and anamorphic widescreen technology to compete with the advent of television.

“Theaters are trying to create more of an overall experience for the viewer in a much more intimate and exclusive way. There are now dinner options, and beverages such as wine and beer, instead of just popcorn and soda,” said Swanson.

It’s a strategy he believes will work well for ArcLight in Santa Monica.

“This is an exclusive, high-end experience they are marketing,” Swanson said. “It’s going to match the demographics of the Santa Monica area, where people can afford to pay more for a special cinematic experience.”

Downtown Santa Monica Inc.’s Rawson said she’s happy to see ArcLight raise the bar.

While competition overtook the now-defunct Mann Criterion, both AMC theaters have undertaken significant modernization efforts in the face of competition from ArcLight. The 44-year-old Laemmle is temporarily shuttered for a major overhaul and is expected to reopen sometime next year.

“A little peer pressure goes a long way. Our existing theaters needed to be renovated,” Rawson said.