Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)

WILSHIRE BLVD — A representative of the American Film Market told an audience of local businesspeople and city officials Thursday that the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and proposed Downtown movie theater were critical to the market’s plans in the city by the sea.

That could be unfortunate, considering both of those projects have fallen through within the last year.

Jonathan Wolf, executive vice president of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, broke the news at the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s State of the City event, where he was accepting the 2012 Economic Excellence award on behalf of AFM.

AFM is the world’s largest film market where thousands of movie industry professionals from roughly 80 countries gather to pitch their movies in hopes of landing distributors and financing.

Its organizers want to pair that economic force with a film festival to rival those of Cannes and Berlin, each of which also contain a separate industry component.

“Coupling that with a cultural event is something that we covet,” Wolf said.

To accomplish that, however, AFM needs both a majestic place to stage red carpet premieres and the modern theaters and amenities that movie industry professionals have come to expect.

Neither of those are available in Santa Monica, and efforts to bring both to the city have fallen apart recently as a result of state policy in the case of the Civic Auditorium and a business decision for the state-of-the-art theater planned for Fourth Street and Arizona Avenue.

Those elements were factors in AFM’s decision to stay in Santa Monica when the market, an economic feather in any city’s cap, was being courted by Los Angeles in 2011.

Over the eight days that AFM was in town in 2012, attendees were expected to pump $20 million into the local economy, according to officials with the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau, the organization that promotes the city to the outside world.

L.A.’s superior screens and cheaper hotels were a temptation for the market, which ultimately chose not to make the jump after marketers voiced their opposition to the move.

Wolf also credited the visitors bureau and Loews Hotel for their efforts in brokering a deal to encourage the market to stay.

While the restoration of the Civic Auditorium and new Downtown theater were not part of the deal, Wolf said, they were “promises and aspirations” of city leaders and AFM officials hoped to see those come true.

The Civic Auditorium was felled by the dissolution of the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency, which was going to put $50 million toward rehabilitating the aging structure that once hosted glamorous events like the Academy Awards.

The auditorium had been losing money for the city for years, and the Nederlander Group, which books and manages other famous venues like the Pantages Theatre, had been tapped to take the reins.

When state officials killed redevelopment, the money went with it and Nederlander backed out of the deal. The City Council voted to mothball the venue beginning July 1, 2013, saving City Hall millions of dollars.

The loss of the proposed theater is more of a mystery.

AMC, which owns several theaters in Downtown, had been working with City Hall for three years to build a new theater on municipal property. The development got all the way through the design phase and the company had almost completed its required — and very expensive — environmental review when it backed out.

The company was recently taken over by a Chinese corporation, although it’s unclear if that caused the firm to walk away from the deal.

Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, said that there is still hope on both fronts.

City officials are looking for another company to take up the development of the movie theater, and the Civic Auditorium is a much-beloved piece of the community.

Saving the Civic may come down to an option that elected officials have previously rejected, like selling naming rights to the facility, Kerns said.

“We may just have to get more comfortable with having it be privatized from a naming standpoint,” she said. “I’m not suggesting we have a Staples Center in Santa Monica, but there are businesses that have that interest who could work hand-in-hand to get what we all want and need.”

As for the Downtown theater, it’s clear that the community — at least the movie-watching community — is behind that.

“All you have to do is look at Yelp,” Kerns said, referencing a string of negative reviews about Santa Monica theatres on the social media rating site.


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