Another Nail in The Coffin for Filmgoing: The Death of LA’s Mann National Theater

By Jason Whyte
Posted 04/17/07 02:52:38

I must start off by saying that I have never seen a movie in the Mann National Theater in Westwood, California. The simple reason being is that I don’t live there. With that said, I have known about the gala venue for many years; when I began to do my research on old cinemas of past, this was one of the surviving cinemas that people who live and have visited the Los Angeles area told me they liked to frequent. I have seen pictures of the cinema inside and out and could easily tell from all of my research that this place was unique and a special place to watch film.

(If you saw David Fincher’s “Zodiac” recently, you’ll recall the National had a cameo -- standing in for a San Francisco cinema -- for when the lead characters go to see a preview screening of “Dirty Harry”.)

And now in the still-early year of 2007, the Mann National will be tailing out its last show at 10:10pm Thursday night with the Mark Walhberg action picture “Shooter”. When the curtains close just after midnight, the mammoth cinema will turn off its lights for good.

I have a soft spot in my heart for single screen palace cinemas such as these. Going to the movies should be a special event, and places like the National are a reminder of what used to be (and should still be today) in a day and age where 15-20 screen megaplexes rake in all the money.

Opening in March 1970 with the film “The Boys in the Band”, the theatre still remains as it did when it opened, with a large golden traveling curtain and an enormous Cinemascope screen looming over its 1,112 seats in an enormous, wide auditorium. Projection and sound quality have improved with technology over the years (including 70mm capability, THX certification, digital sound, and several test formats like Doug Trumbull’s 70mm “Showscan” process and CDS digital sound got their start here), and the cinema has been home to countless Hollywood premieres and first run engagements ever since its birth.

One particular premiere worth noting is the National’s release of William Friedkin’s 1973 classic “The Exorcist”. Upon its release, this was one of the only places you could see the film in the LA area. As one Cinema Treasures member reports on their website: “There were lines of people who waited four hours to get into the theater. At one point, William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty showed up at the theater and gave out coffee to the people waiting in line.”

So this is not a case of an old, sagging theatre finally getting the wrecking ball; the National has remained well-maintained over the years and most likely still would have if the money was coming in and if the finances were doable to secure a new lease. Mann did a good job of keeping the cinema look exactly like you see in these pictures, no matter when it was open.

Even so, the writing was on the wall for the National for some time now. Several of the existing single screen cinemas in LA were struggling and now have multiplexes built around them. Nearby in Hollywood, the world famous Cinerama Dome (one of only three cinemas in the world that still has the potential to play the 3-strip Cinerama process, the others being in Seattle, Washington and Bradford, England) now has a swanky 14 screen Arclight Cinemas attached to it. The resulting “add-on” has created one of the most profitable cinemas in North America. And anyone reading this article knows about the world famous Mann Chinese theater with its historic design and host to many world premieres, but even business at that cinema was sagging as a single-screener and an additional six-screen megaplex exists at its east side.

The placement of the National in Westwood, the booking agreements and the inability to build new screens put made it difficult for the cinema to retain as much power as it used to. Nearby multiplexes are getting better bookings and this lonely single-screener on Lindbrook Drive has been getting the short end of the stick for some time now. It’s unfortunate that Mann did not change the style of programming (switching to first run art-house, for example), or even adopt the Alamo Drafthouse idea (with rows of tables ahead of seats and a fine selection of food and drinks to consume while watching the film). I mention these dreamlike ideas because in order for any cinema to stand out, it has to offer something the next cinema doesn’t. And I truly believe that either of these models could have saved it.

The LA area still has a handful of single screen cinemas left (moreso than any other city in the US), but none of them compared what the National provided. For decades, this was a place where a film was meant to be seen; on an enormous screen with a shared experience of over a thousand like-minded film fans. The fact that bland multiplexes survive and gala cinemas like this close down is just another nail in the coffin to the sagging state of moviegoing today, and this gem of a cinema will surely be missed.

For more information and pictures of the Mann National, point your browser to one of the below links:

Mann National on Cinema Treasures
Photos on Cinema Tour
Mann Theatres official website

Jason Whyte,

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