Christian Meoli, Camilla Jackson talk Arena Cinelounge

Arena Cinelounge-Christian & Camilla (1)

From the moment you enter Hollywood’s Arena Cinelounge,  you can tell you’ve transported yourself to a haven for cinephiles created by cinephiles.

From its stellar, state-of-the-art screening room with luxurious reclining seats to its artisan popcorn, there is little left to the imagination as to why Arena Cinelounge IS the premier arthouse not just in Hollywood.

But in LA.

This is an important statement to consider with the Arclight and its Cinerama Dome just a block away. As one Yelp review said, “They have the best front row in LA.”

Arena-Cinelounge-Marquee-Night

It’s a front row that has played to Hollywood royalty such as DeNiro, Tarantino, Nicholson, Dunaway and more.

Attribute the venue’s success to driven former actor-turned-theatre-entrepreneur Christian Meoli and his uber-talented creative director, who it’s impossible not to develop a crush on, Camilla Jackson.

Arena-Cinelounge-Gourmet-Popcorn 3
(Meoli and Jackson)

The pair are industrious, passionate and, quite frankly nice, proudly making strides on a daily basis to make the Arena Cinelounge the point of destination for film lovers, from all walks of life, in Hollywood.

Since establishing the theatre, in what was known as the former Egyptian Theater, in 2012, Meoli has screened over 2,000 films. Both independent and mainstream industry people flock to the theater on a weekly basis. There are deals with Amazon, HBO, HFPA, Hulu, Google, IFC, Sony, Condé Nast, and more.

Arena Cinelounge Theater
(Luxury viewing awaits in Hollywood)

The company has now established a national distribution platform for independent filmmakers and even launched an app.

Did I mention the addictive artisan popcorn, which sports movie-infused names such as Eternal Popcorn of the Spotless Mind or Popcorn of the Living Dead.

During the AFM in Santa Monica, I had a chance to sit down with Meoli and Jackson and get their thoughts on the present and future for Arena Cinelounge, as well as their crack popcorn.

Christian, when you’re an actor, you sometimes create projects to film for yourself. Instead, you created an entire theater. How did that happen? Being a working actor, expanding and opening a movie theater was an evolution for me. I began to write and produce theater, which morphed into marketing and producing various live events in and around LA. I was able to get into film exhibition with a distribution company and I was VP of Marketing.

When that ended, I found an old theater right next to The Egyptian in Hollywood and set up shop with the bare essentials needed. At the time it was a screen with frame I bought off Craigslist that I carried down 15 flights of stairs with an Action Messenger guy who was game, but had no idea what he was getting himself into.

I bought a projector I found off eBay, other used equipment, and 99 new seats. The venue back then from 1972-1992 was The Egyptian 2 & 3, when the triplex was run by United Artists.

From 1996 and onward, it had been called Arena Stage for decades, so I named it Arena Cinema. I knew for this to work I would be committing myself to a seven day a week work schedule presenting films and this became my full-time job.

I found a marquee in Ventura that I strapped to the hood of my car. My box office was a used tablet and a little cash box. I off-set expenses by sharing the space with an acting school that was in there during the daytime and at night we’d crank up the films.

It was completely self-funded, because at the time I couldn’t get a loan from a bank for more than $5,000.

Wow, that is the Hollywood dream right there. Camilla, you’ve written for Fangoria, Blumhouse, and Shock Till You Drop. You clearly know scary. What was the scariest part about the Arena Cinelounge proposition for you? The scariest thing was really trying to get audiences excited about independent film in an age where consumers are bombarded with studio fare.

Having been able to write about a genre I love and know was great, but then being thrown into a world that is totally immersed in little known films and filmmakers, I initially felt overwhelmed at how much more was out there! There is always some new and exciting director springing up in the films we show.

Christian has placed me front and center with opportunities to program and be involved across the board. I came from curating classic films back in my hometown of Melbourne, and I feel this has really upped the ante! Some of the incredible filmmakers and directors that I can call a friend/mentor from my work at Arena Cinelounge blows my mind.

Christian, take us back to 2012; how sick and nervous were you when it’s opening day? It was an uphill fight from the get-go of convincing people what I was doing was legitimate and good enough to exhibit new indie movies.

I really needed LA Weekly and the LA Times to accept us. I needed film bookers and distributors to come in and experience it. When Michael Tuckman came in, who was booking for Tribeca Film at the time, and gave his nod of approval — that was huge. When Mark Olsen of the LA Times did the same thing, I knew that would help us be considered in the game.

Then we had to convince the audiences we were for real. I literally built up the concessions one item at a time, but always knew I wanted cool, healthy curated items to stand out from the others.

I was one of the first to offer boxed water and healthy options. In those early days, a lot was nerve-racking and I was battling elements that were not making things easier for me at all.

I had mistakenly thought The American Cinematheque at The Egyptian next door was going to be supportive, but they were anything but. Because our front door was essentially at their back end, I had many nights where they would literally block my entrance with volunteer parking cars and celebrity limousines.

It would get really heated when they would refuse to move them, which happened until I would lose my cool.

In your opinions, what separates Arena Cinelounge from other art house theaters?  We started it from scratch and we absolutely love movies and new films. Being an independent operator gives us the ability to take risks with programming and present cool filmmakers that most people maybe aren’t familiar with.

We’ve been extremely diversified in our programming since we launched. We’ve never shown Marvel movies. We pack as many films into our weekly programming as possible. Anywhere from 6-8 films per day. We’re the screen you find an amazing Peruvian film or Nordic noir, the place that champions new genre and young minority filmmakers.

This is a theater that only continues to improve and get better. We love films, we breathe it, we consume film ongoing and we’re personable, nice, and likable.

Experience is always a teacher. Now with over 2000 films screened later, what do each of you wish you had done differently at the beginning?

Christian: I regret acquiescing to Courtney Love’s cease and desist when I was going to run the movie Soaked in Bleach (which I also had a supporting role in). There are always many things that you realize you could have done differently.

The path for me has been one of constant learning and has awarded me tremendous knowledge and incredible relationships. We’ve grown the business as we’ve been able to grow, and each dot we’ve connected are parts of our journey and legacy.

Camilla: There are always little things and mental notes I make to myself about what’s working and what doesn’t. But we are learning every day and are also in a business that is constantly changing. I think it took me a while to realize the tremendous opportunity this was starting out, and I suppose in a way, wish I had seen that earlier.

The opportunities to help independent film in this town are limitless and we are in a position to truly make a difference depending on how we tackle it – it’s a matter of finding the best ways to implement.

Where do you see indie film going in the future? Arena Cinelounge offers a venue for them and festivals do as well. Have you considered starting your own film festival? The challenge with indie films moving forward is the same as it is now; awareness and marketing. If people have no clue your movie is out there, how are they going to be able to discover it.

That’s why Arena Cinelounge is a brand to trust to discover great new films. Each week, we’re programming 4-6 new films you need to know about because they’re genuinely great.

Arena Cinelounge is basically a 365-day-a-year film festival. Each month viewers get to see 25-30 films with us. The best of the best. We’re in discussions to have film series that will act as festivals focused on theme and genres.

We are eyeing May 2020 for our first dedicated Cinelounge Presents Festival.

Can you tell us a little about your collaborations with Amazon, Hulu etc? Over the past two years we’ve been fortunate enough to do special events, engagements and premieres for Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Youtube, Conde Nasté, among others. We are excited to have them amongst our new clients.

We love the idea of having a super indie filmmaker showing something, followed by a high-brow HBO production – harvesting a variety of flavors at Arena Cinelounge!

A number of celebrities and cinephiles have come through. Who was the first? Who comes the most? Robert DeNiro was just in. Quentin Tarantino, Mark Duplass, Gus Van Sant, Kevin Smith, Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, Jeremy Renner, Jeff Garlin, Richard Lewis, Karen Gillam, Rita Wilson, Elijah Wood, Bella Thorne, Steven Tyler, Thomas Lennon, Glenn Danzig, Mark Pellington… have been by to check out films or to see their own movies.

You’ve started a distribution division. Can you tell us more? Will you distribute shorts since they are becoming more and more prevalent on the indie scene? Absolutely, yes. “Cinelounge Presents” is our distribution arm. Shorts and features. There needs to be a new folder and genre created and that’s ultra-independent films. We aim to be one of the leading curators of such content moving forward. Cinelounge Presents is all about bringing smart, thought-provoking, intelligent, new genre titles to audiences in theaters and then all platforms.

Where do you see AC in 5 years? 10 years? When I rebranded to Arena Cinelounge, I really understood what the future can be for our brand and how important boutique cinema is going to be in the next 5-20 years.

Arena Cinelounge is a bridge between theater and home entertainment. So everything we do must be focused on that. Our plan is to fully disrupt the movie exhibition business and to have a seat at the table. We aim to democratize programming and be the fully materialized return of neighborhood cinema through our modest footprint, that is optimal for mixed use developments across the globe.

You will be finding Cinelounge’s presence in places you would never expect movie theaters to be and film curation much more appreciated and digestible.

And now there is the app. When I download, what will I find? The Arena Cinelounge app is truly the best deal for audiences to movies in Los Angeles. Our price tiers and what we offer are love letters to audiences by removing the price point reason not to see amazing films multiple times per week and experience our super cool Hollywood venue.

The most costly part of the experience is now the gas or the bus fare it will cost them to get to Hollywood. $18 for 8 movies per month. $29 to add popcorn and a drink to those movies.

There is no theater anywhere where you can have movies, popcorn and a drink for under $4 average per visit. And you can do that 8 times per month with us. Huzzah! There’s a tier you can literally attend our premieres and walk the red carpet. Arena Cinelounge App is available on the Google Play and iTunes Store for download.

Arena-Cinelounge-Gourmet-Popcorn 3
Arena-Cinelounge-Gourmet-Popcorn 3

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. This addictive crack that you call gourmet popcorn. Were you just toying around in the kitchen and came up with flavors? We must know the whole story! We’re all in with our popcorn and it’s truly the best on the face of the earth. No theater can compete with us in this territory.

John Fithian, the head of NATO (National Association of Theater Owners), told me it was the best popcorn he’s ever had. Right now we have 9 gourmet blends, and have no plans to stop having so much fun creating these. Our next steps are to take Cinelounge Gourmet Popcorn nationwide and to have popcorn revenues support all our creative end.

The Reel 360 Team must be in possession of this lovely, VEGAN popcorn at all times!

Contact Colin Costello at colin@reel360.com

COMMENTS