Netflix Gets a Punch of Panache With the Revitalized Egyptian Theatre

During the silent era, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre was a majestic movie palace where Hollywood’s biggest stars premiered their films. The year it opened in 1922, the Egyptian opened Douglas Fairbanks’ iconic “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” It launched Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” in 1923 and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” in 1925. Situated in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, only a few blocks from Grauman’s other movie palace, the Chinese Theatre, the Egyptian showcased all the opulence and splendor that was filmmaking.

In the ensuing decades, the Egyptian changed alongside its location, adding and subtracting pieces of the theater — columns were torn down and a glass facade added and taken away — but the majesty of showing one’s film there never diminished. The Egyptian premiered “Ben-Hur” in 1959 and James Cameron’s “Aliens” in 1986.

Now, Netflix has revitalized the Egyptian with a $70 million renovation that brings the historic movie house into the 21st century. For the streamer, it is an opportunity to own a piece of history while having a centrally located venue to show their movies to theater-loving audiences. Until recently that wasn’t possible: In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice terminated the Paramount Decree, the 1948 decision that determined studios couldn’t own theaters and distribute movies.

Netflix says studios can produce new movies while continuing to support classic films — the ones that made studios like Netflix possible.

“When you’re in the entertainment [business], the most important job is to help more people fall in love with storytelling, and to support and get back to the industry that’s given so much to all of us,” Ted Sarandos, CEO of Netflix, said during a recent news conference marking the Egyptian’s reopening.

Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” which premiered at the Egyptian
Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” which premiered at the Egyptian

The theater had been closed since Netflix acquired it in 2020 from the American Cinematheque for $30 million, including $14.4 million in cash and $15.6 in holdback escrow accounts, according to the non-profit organization’s 2020 tax filing. The Egyptian underwent a nearly three-year renovation to bring it up to code for earthquake protection, update the interior and screening equipment to Netflix’s specifications and to improve disabled accessibility. (The escrow accounts were $6.1 million for seismic improvements, $2.5 for deferred maintenance and $7 million for renovations, according to the tax filing.)

The eventual $70 million dollar renovation project is an investment in the Hollywood Boulevard community and in filmmaking in general, Netflix Film Chairman Scott Stuber and American Cinematheque Chairman Rick Nicita told TheWrap. Netflix gave the Cinematheque the ability to operate the venue on weekends for repertory screenings.

“We want to work together to make sure that we’re telling modern stories, but also telling all those great stories and making sure that they ignite the community around a great movie house.” Stuber said.

It’s something movie fans are seeing sporadically, with the Egyptian and the newly renovated Vista Theater reopening within days of each other. The Vista is the second theater director Quentin Tarantino has purchased (the other being the New Beverly). But it’s still a rarity in Hollywood. Iconic theaters like the Cinerama Dome and the Arclight have been sitting empty since the pandemic started, despite public outcry that directors should invest in them.

Netflix’ Egyptian investment speaks to a larger prestige play by the tech-company streamers, which up until recently had showed its desire to be considered alongside legacy studios by actually taking over legacy studios. That includes Amazon Studios’ move to the former Ince/Desilu studios in Culver City, where “Gone with the Wind” and “Citizen Kane” were filmed.

To achieve the renovations of the Egyptian, which now seats 516 people, architect Ross Brennan of Studio440 and historic consultant Peyton Hall brought a blend of 1920s glamour to a theater that’s filled with nearly every technological toy a theater could need. The sound system is equipped to play Dolby Atmos and it remains one of just five theaters in the United States capable of playing movies on highly flammable nitrate film stock.

The approach to the theatre was through a courtyard in an ornate style evoking ancient Egypt, while inside, the stage was flanked by carved columns and models of the Sphinx. And much of that has remained, albeit upgraded for the 21st-century. A gorgeous fountain, turned off years ago because it had a tendency to leak into the restaurant next door, has been fixed and brings kinetic energy to the courtyard. Inside, the concession stand has been removed, in favor of a staircase (and accompanying ramp) that pays homage to where the last seats of the original 1922 theaters used to stand. Compared to the larger TCL theatre down the street, the theater feels both intimate and timeless.

Not everyone, however, is praising its newly restored beauty. Upon hearing of Netflix’s agreement to acquire the theater in 2019, a group of historians asked the Los Angeles City Council and Attorney General to halt the sale, fearing the theater would be significantly altered or irreparably destroyed by the streaming giant. Others worried the American Cinematheque, which used the Egyptian to show repertory screenings, wouldn’t be able to continue using the theater.

But Nicita told TheWrap that Netflix was a savior. “We were up against difficult headwinds between the pandemic and changes in culture and theatergoing habits,” he said. “We were trying to figure out what the next move [was] and the theater was deteriorating.”

The Egyptian went through several lows before the American Cinematheque purchased it for $1 in 1996 — on the condition it would be restored. The theater tried to add two additional screens in 1972 before it closed for good in 1992. In 1994, the theater sustained massive damage after the Northridge earthquake, with photos from the time showing the theater with visible damage to the structure.

City codes enacted in the wake of the quake threatened the theater’s future, regardless of Netflix’s ownership, Brennan and Hall explained. The Egyptian is a concrete frame building with clay tile infill, and Los Angeles passed an ordinance stating that pre-1970 concrete frame buildings need to be upgraded or torn down within 25 years, Brennan said.

As it stands right now, Netflix will control the theater during the week to showcase their streaming features to adhere to the theatrical screening requirement for Oscar consideration. It reopened the theater with a splashy premiere for David Fincher’s “The Killer” and will premiere Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro” there in December.

The Cinematheque will operate it on the weekends, showing old Hollywood classics like “Lawrence of Arabia.” Nicita said Netflix has “no official say” in the weekend programming.

The Killer
Michael Fassbender in “The Killer” (Netflix)

But some partnerships will be affected by the studio owning the theater. “We had some agreements on certain showings of certain films from distributors, [that] we shouldn’t show it at certain times,” Nicita said without getting into specifics. This also strongly implies that the theater’s future as a venue for the annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., has ended. Stuber wouldn’t confirm that. “I don’t know if that’s possible, just from a totality of the calendar,” he said. (Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story.)

While competitors might not be able to utilize the Egyptian, Stuber and crew reiterate they want the Egyptian to become a community hub, almost like a recreation center. “Our offices are right down the street,” said Sarandos. “We’ve worked with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, and all the local businesses and the community leaders to make this a place where everyone can come and feel the magic of cinema.”

Netflix’s offices, prominently featured on the famed Sunset Boulevard, also seem to situate the streamer as continuing its push to become as respected as the legacy studios that dominate the Valley, like Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. (Disney owns the classic El Capitan theater on Hollywood Boulevard, down the street form the Egyptian.)

As for classic films, Netflix doesn’t have immediate plans to change how it curates that content on the streaming service, an issue going back to 2017 when the streamer had only 43 pre-1970s movies on its entire service, as Newsweek pointed out. As it stands now, the Netflix “Classic Film” section promotes only one pre-1970s feature: 1954’s “White Christmas.”

Stuber is hopeful that Netflix’s clout from working with top directors like Fincher, Jane Campion, Edward Berger and others will help fans seek out more classic films. “When you do a screening here and I can get David Fincher to show a ’70s movie and talk about what interested him it gives it a new vibe,” Stuber said. “So it doesn’t feel like a black and white 1938 movie, but it understands why that piece of storytelling influences today’s storytellers.”

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