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For most of the silent film era, the place to catch a movie in Los Angeles was downtown, where a six-block stretch of Broadway was lined with a dozen cinemas fronted with grand marquees and buzzing neon. Among them was the Million Dollar Theater, owned by the vaudeville entrepreneur Sid Grauman.
In the early 1920s, Grauman decided to open a grand new cinema about 12km away in Hollywood, then a sleepy industry town where the business of moviemaking was conducted. The idea was to turn Hollywood into an entertainment centre — and Grauman knew he had the show business nous to make that happen.
The moment arrived on October 18 1922, when Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre opened its doors for the debut of Douglas Fairbanks’ latest silent film, Robin Hood. Grauman rolled a red carpet across the courtyard in front of his sphinx- and scarab-adorned cinema — a first, apparently — and the template for the star-studded Hollywood premiere was set.
For a while it was not so certain that the Egyptian itself would endure as long as Grauman’s innovations in the field of glitz and hype. The cinema closed in 1992 and was badly damaged in an earthquake two years later. The American Cinematheque, a non-profit, reopened the Egyptian in 1998 and began restoration efforts but struggled to finance all the necessary work.
After years of concern about its condition, the Egyptian reopened this week after a four-year, $70mn-plus restoration funded by Netflix — a company that has built its $190bn market value by making it extremely easy for people to watch movies from the comfort of their sofa at home.
This isn’t the first time the streaming pioneer has rescued an old cinema. It also restored the Paris Theater in New York, preventing it from suffering the indignity of being turned into a chain pharmacy.
This embrace of cinemas by the company that has thoroughly disrupted Hollywood may seem puzzling, especially at a time when other tech companies are discovering the charms of the box office. Apple is launching original films including Killers of the Flower Moon and Napoleon exclusively in thousands of cinemas before they arrive on its streaming service, an idea that Netflix rejects for its own films.
Yet Ted Sarandos, Netflix co-chief executive, says there is a logic to saving classic movie houses. “We premiere our films and series in theatres almost every night, and we were renting theatres to do that,” he told the FT this week. “We realised there was an opportunity to put our money to good use and preserve a great building like [the Egyptian] or the Paris.”
He is not buying the argument, mostly made by cinema owners, that Netflix films would perform better on the streaming service if they had a good run in a movie house first. “We’re not trying to preserve the economics of exhibition, just the experience of exhibition,” he says.
Whatever the reasons, Netflix has paid for a beautiful restoration and much-needed structural work. The neon “Egyptian” vertical blade sign facing Hollywood Boulevard has been restored, along with the 1922 Egyptian-style hieroglyphics and other artwork. (Of the hieroglyphs, Egyptian Theatre expert Mark Simon says: “They tell absolutely no story whatsoever.”)
State-of-the art sound systems have also been installed — an important upgrade for a room designed for silent films — along with an array of digital and film projectors. The Egyptian will be one of only five cinemas in the US that can project nitrate film, the exquisite but highly flammable medium used from the 1890s until the 1950s.
Netflix plans to show its own movies in the cinema during the week, then turn it over to American Cinematheque, which will curate a weekend programme that includes both recent and classic films. This month alone it will screen David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Now that it is back to being a working cinema, Sarandos hopes the Egyptian will become an important part of the fabric of Hollywood again.
“The Hollywood sign and this building are the most iconic symbols of Hollywood, and they both just celebrated their 100th anniversary,” he says. “What is Hollywood without its icons?”