DOWNTOWN— The uncertain future of the Civic Auditorium tops the list of nagging problems faced by the organizers of the world’s largest film market, AFM, which opens in Santa Monica on Wednesday.
When the American Film Market, which will bring an estimated $20 million to the local economy this week, inked a 2011 deal to continue to meet in Santa Monica through 2017, organizers were under the impression that the Civic would receive a massive renovation. A deal to add a large state-of-the-art AMC theater in Santa Monica was in the works. Plans for affordable hotels on Fifth Street were moving along.
The Civic was shuttered in July and its future is now in flux, thanks to the dissolution of City Hall’s Redevelopment Agency, which would have funded the project.
Its future is the top item on AFM’s “problem list,” said managing director Jonathan Wolf.
Next on the list is the lack of new theaters, he said.
“There used to be 23 theater screens in Santa Monica and now there are 15 and none with stadium seating,” he said. “For a world-class film market it’s creating some real struggles for us. We’re screening films in seven hotel ballrooms. It’s hard to tell someone why their $50 million film is not going to be in a theater.”
In 2012, AMC pulled its plans for a 12-screen theater on Fourth Street. At least five other theater operators have shown interest in the site, where Parking Structure 3 is located. Negotiations are delayed because the state is disputing City Hall’s control over the property, which received RDA-funded seismic retrogrades.
The “icing on the cake,” Wolf said, is the fact that the six-screen AMC Criterion closed earlier this year.
A nine-screen theater, with stadium seating, is proposed for the third level of Santa Monica Place mall. City officials hope this theater will be the first of many.
The final problem is affordability for guests, he said.
Plans for two proposed affordable hotels on the corner of Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue have been delayed several times. The Planning Commission recently recommended that City Council squash the project unless the developers agree to a series of demands.
“We find our participants are somewhat priced out,” Wolf said. “It’s interesting. We use about half the hotel rooms in Santa Monica. And about half of our traveling participants don’t stay in Santa Monica. It’s not for lack of capacity. It’s simply the price-points, even for the wealthy old business traveler, don’t always work.”
Wolf was clear that the city itself is ideal for the event, that it offers more than “almost any other place could on the West Coast.”
But would he consider leaving? In 2011, AFM was courting downtown Los Angeles before deciding to stick with Santa Monica.
“I never want to even think about that or comment on it,” he said. “We don’t want to leave but the challenges are growing.”
Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau President and CEO Misty Kerns empathized with Wolf.
“We certainly can understand the AFM team’s position and appreciate their patience as our community addresses these important issues of new and renovated theaters and hotels,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We look forward to the outcome of the newly formed Civic Working Group and working with AFM and city staff to bring movie premiers back to the Civic.”
Last month, council created a Civic Auditorium Working Group, which is tasked with fundraising and renovating the Civic. The auditorium needs a new roof, a seismic retrofit, and a full modernization of the interior.
With the RDA dissolution, City Hall lost $51 million in funding for the renovation. Experts have estimated that the total renovation could cost double that amount.
City officials are headed to Sacramento this week to negotiate the future of properties funded by the RDA, including Parking Structure 3.
The plans for the Fifth Street hotels will go before council in the near future.
More than 400 films, including 75 world premiers, will be screened over the next eight days as part of AFM.
Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is the epicenter of the film market, with all rooms being rented out to serve as offices.
Paul Leclerc, general manager of Loews, called the event “massive” and highlighted its importance to the city as a whole.
The event is also a financial win for Loews, he said.
“It’s a funny time of the year, with Halloween leading up to the Thanksgiving holidays, it’s not a big group season for us,” he said. “When we did the math in terms of this show and how it affects the hotel, it was without question advantageous for us to continue to do the market at this time of the year. That was the motivator for us to continue to keep the partnership alive.”
For more information on AFM, visit americanfilmmarket.com.