YONDER: A sign on Ocean Avenue points the way to the American Film Market. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

DOWNTOWN — Last year, with the closure of the Civic Auditorium, the managing director of the world’s largest independent film market told the Daily Press that “challenges are growing.”

On Wednesday the American Film Market (AFM) kicks off in locations across Downtown and challenges are even greater but the future is also brighter.

Santa Monica’s theaters are aging. There hasn’t been a new one built in decades.

When the 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.

In 2013, the Civic Auditorium, where AFM previously showed films, was shuttered after millions of dollars set aside for its much needed seismic retrofitting was lost along with the dissolution of the redevelopment agency. The AMC deal fell through. Affordable hotel projects were delayed.

AFM made due with last year’s set up but Managing Director Jonathan Wolf made clear that new theaters and more affordable hotels were needed.

Since then, City Council approved the construction of a new ArcLight Cinema on the third level of the Santa Monica Place mall. They approved the construction of two affordable hotels at Colorado Avenue and Fifth Street. Council also agreed to enter into contract negotiations with ArcLight for a second, even larger theater, which would replace Parking Structure 3.

The Laemmle 4-Plex closed its doors for renovation. They are adding two screens — there will be six total — and drastically reducing seats from 1,091 to 372. They also plan to allow alcohol in the theaters and in two new restaurants. One of the restaurants will be on the roof.

But none of these projects have are done yet and so no new screens have been added to this year’s market.

Laemmle planned to be open in time for this year’s AFM but plans stalled and so, in fact, the market is down another set of screens.

“It’s always tough,” Wolf said of the theater deficit. “We want to present film in the best environment possible.”

In response, AFM added two screens at the DoubleTree Hotel. This brings the grand total of non-commercial screens to 11. This year, those non-commercial screens will be open until 9 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.

“Between the two new screens at the DoubleTree and the one we’re using at Tunnel Post, and of course the Ocean Screening room, and the other screens we’ve set up, we’ve managed to satisfy the needs of the sales companies,” Wolf said, “but they’re understanding that it’s for one year and sort of like construction on the 405, they’re dealing with it for a year.”

Laemmle is scheduled to open next year, which “will balance things out,” according to Wolf, and the first ArcLight is supposed to open in time for the 2016 AFM.

As for the market itself, Wolf is excited about the mini-booths located on the third floor of the Loews Hotel.

“From our standpoint we’re seeing what I’ll call a bifurcation of the industry,” he said. “More bigger films and more smaller films and fewer films that are sort of pegged, budget wise, in the middle. We’re seeing more companies coming to the AFM selling films in the last four or five years, more film screenings, and pushing the edges on both ends of our bigger films but also, a lot more smaller companies bringing more micro-budget films.”

And there’s the annual question: Will AFM stay in Santa Monica?

“The theaters will open and we will stay,” Wolf said emphatically. “I don’t think there’s a question mark on it. We’re having discussions with ArcLight. That isn’t settled but those things are tedious and take time. Most of the hotels have very long-term agreements with us. There’s only one holdout (Wyndham) — eventually they’ll change management and will come along.”

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Wolf was busy with the market’s finishing touches.

“We’re just happy to be here,” he said. “We’re in Santa Monica for a very, very long time.”

dave@www.smdp.com

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