Skip To Content

This film, not ‘The Fabelmans,’ was the greatest Jewish film story of 2022

‘Only in Theaters’ is a funny, heartbreaking and moving story about the power of movies

Last year saw the release of a stirring saga of a Jewish family’s journey through difficult times that doubles as a paean to the power of cinema — it’s not called The Fabelmans.

Only in Theaters follows Greg Laemmle, a third-generation owner of a storied LA arthouse chain, as the business contends with the rise of streaming and a pandemic that shuttered their doors for a year

Well before the landscape of cinema faced its mightiest challenge, director Raphael Sbarge was drawn to the Laemmle family, and it’s no wonder why. As Greg says, seated in a row of one of the Laemmle theaters, the premier LA venue for independent and foreign films (and also, he adds, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which falls somewhere in between while resisting categorization), “there really has been a Laemmle in the film business ever since there has been a film business.”

The early parts of the film, shot in 2019, tell the immigrant story of Max and Kurt Laemmle, from Stuttgart, Germany. Their Uncle Carl came over with nothing and managed to found a little family firm called Universal Pictures. In the 1930s, Max was in Paris working for the studio when Kurt, fearing the rise of fascism, recalled him to the U.S. to open theaters. The rest is history and, lucky for the film, Kurt’s widow, Alyse, who worked the box office while pregnant with her first child, was around to share stories from the early days.

The current Laemmle family, introduced during a Shabbat dinner at their home (they have a painting of the famous “I don’t roll on shabbos” quote from The Big Lebowski), are remarkably charming and forthcoming about their business. Since they are committed to programming films with artistic merit or those that otherwise can’t secure a venue, the advent of streaming hurt their bottom line, forcing them to consider the sale of some or even all of their theaters.

Greg announces the future of the business during the annual Christmas Eve singalong to Fiddler on the Roof, an apt programming choice for the film’s concerns of legacy, tradition and changing times. The screening was in late December 2019. We all know what happened next, and Sbarge conducted a large portion of interviews over Zoom throughout the pandemic. (He also tracks the pandemic-era marquees, a favorite being “Now Playing: Life Stinks” and “Coming Soon: Hope Floats.”)

Sbarge, an actor and the Emmy-nominated director of LA Foodways, was nimble with his evolving story, though, as an occasional narrator, he holds the audience’s hand more than he has to. 

Talking head asides from directors Cameron Crowe, James Ivory, Ava Duvernay and lesser-known filmmakers occasionally go off-piste in their appreciation of the cinema experience writ large. I wondered if it needed these interviews, or if a more vérité approach could have served the same purpose. 

When the film focuses on the Laemmles, the film delivers a funny, touching, multi-layered portrait that gets at an elemental part of the human experience.

“We’re designed to be around other people,” Greg Laemmle, says. It’s a lovely sentiment, best enjoyed in a dark room with other moviegoers.

Only In Theaters opens in New York on Jan. 20 at the IFC Center and New Plaza Cinemas.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.