By Heidi Simmons

Waiting in line at the Cinémas Palme d’Or box office these days, the talk is not about movies, but about the closing of the beloved theater.  Every year this paper has held a “Best in the Coachella Valley” event, Cinémas Palme d’Or was consistently voted the favorite movie theater.

“I’m very upset about the closing,” said year-round resident Francine Wixen of Shadow Hills.  “My friends and I come every other week, at the very least.  We like the art films and independent movies.  We don’t mind the subtitled foreign films.   Where will we see these movies now?  We’ll be missing out on films you can’t see anywhere else.  It’s deeply upsetting.”

Wixen is not alone.  It seems everyone holds the same opinion and concern.

Cinémas Palme d’Or officially opened its doors October 10, 2003.  The last day to see movies at the theater will be June 30.

“It’s a family here,” said Melanie Barbe, Cinémas Palme d’Or General Manager.  “We have really built up our clientele.  We know many by name.  I worry about our Snowbirds who may not know about our closing.”  Barbe has been with Cinémas Palme d’Or for over ten years.   The theater has 20 employees and many have worked there for multiple years.   “The staff is all very close.  We know the owners and they know us.”

For the owners of Cinémas Palme d’Or, it hasn’t been the profits that kept them doing business, but the love of movies as quality entertainment.  The partners include ESPN radio personality Steve Mason, Hollywood producer Alise Mauritzson and film buyer Brian Tabor.  Together they formed Flagship Theaters, LLC.  Actor Bryan Cranston came on board a year later after he showed his independent movie “Last Chance” which he directed starring his wife, actress Robin Dearden.  Cranston said it was always a dream of his to own a movie theater.

The regular movie Q&As at Cinémas Palme d’Or have always been an audience favorite.  The theater has held over 400 Q&A screenings that have included actors, directors, producers and writers.  Some of the in-person talent includes: Helen Mirren, David O. Russell, Viola Davis, Jonah Hill, Brie Larsen, Aaron Paul, Andy Garcia, Gena Rowlands, Alexander Payne, Virginia Madsen, Rob Reiner and Bob Odenkirk among many others.

For an independent theater that focuses on new films in all genres, the partners chose the name Cinémas Palme d’Or, referencing the top honor prize presented at the Cannes film festival.  “We thought this was apropos and would appeal to the sophistication of our Palm Desert audience,” said Brian Tabor.  “With the wide variety of films we show and special events, it’s like a film festival experience every week.”

Over the 13 years, approximately 2,000 different films have been shown across Cinémas Palme d’Or’s ten screens.  That’s about 228,000 individual screenings.   Besides studio produced films, 3D, 4K, independent movies and foreign films, Cinémas Palme d’Or streams live performances from London’s National Theater, as well as performances from the Royal Opera and Bolshoi Ballet and other wonderful big screen cultural events.

For six years, the theater held benefit screenings for Paws & Hearts where patrons brought their dogs to the movies – usually a specially selected animal centric film.

Before Cinémas Palme d’Or closes, the theater will show “Art on Screen” featuring the works of Renoir and Van Gogh.

According to Tabor, who is also the Operations Manager, he estimates 3.236 million people have passed through Cinémas Palme d’Or doors.  He says what he finds most gratifying is to hear that an audience loved the movie.   Tabor is a second-generation theater owner.

Cinémas Palme d’Or changed the local movie-going experience by being the first CV movie house to offer in theater beer and wine for adults.  If you’ve seen one movie at Cinémas Palme d’Or, you’ve seen the promo – a slow pouring red wine splashing into a pristine glass.  Delicious even if you don’t drink.  Tabor had the ad specifically made for the theater.

With so much love for the theater, its content and its employees, many find it hard to understand why Cinémas Palme d’Or would close when it seems to have hit its stride.

In an open letter to the trade publication BigScreen Cinema Guide announcing Cinémas Palme d’Or closing, the partners said: “You have been the most loyal patrons we could ever hope for and together we have built one of the most original movie theatres in America.”

“Independent theatres like ours have fought for survival over the past decade.  We are very proud of Cinémas Palme d’Or, and the struggle has been worth it.  We have been able to play an important role in changing the industry, and making it easier for independent theatres, now and in the future, to be successful.”

When Cinémas Palme d’Or first opened its doors as an independent theater it faced the challenge of procuring new film releases from the major studios.  Referred to as “clearances,” large movie theater chains have studio deals where they can lockout smaller competing movie houses.  In the case with Cinémas Palme d’Or, Rancho Mirage’s Cinemark requested exclusive rights to screen studio titles, depriving Cinémas Palme d’Or bigger and potentially higher grossing films.

Even owner Bryan Cranston, as an award winning actor and Oscar© nominee, could not get some of his movies into his own theater.

Boldly and Bravely, Cinémas Palme d’Or took the theater and studio system of keeping small independent theaters out of the distribution loop, to court.  After only 3 years in business, the lawsuit was not only necessary, important and precedent setting, but expensive.

As with any new business, the first several years of keeping the doors open became even more of a major challenge.

Situated on the lower level and on the backside of Westfield mall, the theaters were – are — hard to find.  There are people who are still surprised to discover Cinémas Palme d’Or!  There is no access to the theater or signs inside the shopping center indicating a movie theater exists.  There is no Cinémas Palme d’Or marquee on highway 111 or the surrounding major streets.  Also, there is no elevator access from the second floor food court.

The Westfield mall, as a landlord, has played no part in helping or supporting the independent theater.  In fact, it’s fair to say they have hurt the theater’s business.

While struggling to build their clientele, Cinémas Palme d’Or also faced changing technology.  Projection and sound equipment was improving.  And film was evolving, requiring more expensive industry upgrades like 3D.   Soon the celluloid film reels became digital files.  Keeping up with the technology was costly.   Cinémas Palme d’Or made the improvements a priority in order to keep their discerning audiences happy as well as staying up-to-date, viable and competitive.

Since the beginning, the partners have never shared in profits, because the money flow went back into the business.

Without access to studio blockbusters and hindered by Westfield’s management, Cinémas Palme d’Or still hit their stride and made the theater a shinning success and valued community experience.

As of today, the battle over “clearances” continues.  Twentieth Century Fox has taken Cinémas Palme d’Or’s side and will no longer honor Cinemark’s clearances.  Universal Pictures has just announced they will release their much anticipated film “Warcraft” without any clearances.  It seems only a matter of time until clearances will be a thing of the past.

However, for Cinémas Palme d’Or, it will be too late.  This June, the theater’s lease is up, and Westfield refused to consider a renewal.  Westfield has thrown out one of the mall’s most cherished tenants.

The owners of Cinémas Palme d’Or created and demonstrated how to run a quality independent movie house that truly served the demographics of its surrounding community.  Cinémas Palme d’Or found their niche and discovered a family of movie lovers.

“They’re the best,” said Bruce Whitman with his wife Ginny about Cinémas Palme d’Or.  “The valley is not going to be the same without them.”

From the trade publication notice Cinémas Palme d’Or owners said: “We could have never expected just how successful Cinémas Palme d’Or would be.  There is something very special in the bond that we have developed with our devoted customers.  Together we have been able to celebrate filmmaking as an art. This has been a golden time for us.  From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for the memories.”

Movies are among our most shared human experiences.  Cinémas Palme d’Or’s extended movie loving family is grateful for the hours of pleasure, diversion, insight, adventure, wonder, intellectual stimulation, laughs and tears.   Cinémas Palme d’Or will be a part of Coachella Valley’s history.  It will be missed.