For the last month, the intersection of Lagoon and Girard has been awash with pink. Eager moviegoers dressed in variously elaborate outfits have been flocking to the Lagoon Cinema to see “Barbie.” For residents of Southwest hoping to see a movie close to home, the Lagoon is their only choice.

A long line of people dressed in shades of pink purchase tickets to “Barbie” at Lagoon Cinema on July 22. Photo by Ellie Zimmerman.

After a trying past decade for movie theaters in the area, the Lagoon Cinema is holding out as Southwest’s lone survivor into the post-peak-pandemic era. With Barbie landing at number 20 on the all-time box office list on opening weekend and a number of other blockbusters showing at the formerly arthouse theater, this summer shows that movie theaters in Southwest might be dwindling, but they aren’t dead. Not yet.

Landmark Theatres, a national cinema company that often buys and restores historic movie theaters, built the Lagoon Cinema in 1995 as a modern addition to the nearby Uptown Theater, which Landmark also owned at the time. The triangular sign on top of the building mirrors the iconic tower on the Uptown, cementing a visual link between the two.

Landmark Theaters’ Lagoon Cinema, one block east of Uptown Theater, which was formerly owned by Landmark Theaters through 2020. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

For many years, the Lagoon was dedicated to showing independent, foreign, and smaller-budget films that larger theaters did not feature. Though the website still claims such a focus, film aficionados have been bemoaning the Lagoon’s backslide into the mainstream for years. In 2008, a local film blogger with the screen name Daniel captured the feeling of betrayal among Lagoon Cinema purists.

“In recent months, regulars at the Lagoon have been horrified to see major studio films creep into the weekly lineup. On one hand I understand that the survival of the theater (which is always rumored to be in jeopardy) depends on attendance numbers, but on the other hand, seeing The Dark Knight, Mamma Mia!, and Quantum of Solace on the marquee just feels...wrong,” he wrote in the opening to his movie snobbery-fueled review of the theater.

The movies on this summer’s docket at the Lagoon certainly don’t prove Daniel’s complaints wrong, however. It’s “Asteroid City” followed by “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” followed by “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” With the loss of the Suburban World Theater in 2014 (now called Granada Theater) and the Uptown Theatre in 2021 (now a music venue and the center of much consternation over the fate of its historic marquee), the Lagoon, once a steady source of rare and independent film showings, has stepped in to fill the gaps left by those theaters that used to be reliable outlets for top-dollar blockbusters.

At this point, you know the list of reasons why small movie theaters are struggling: streaming services, DVDs, television, cushy corporate theater chains, and a pandemic too. It’s not easy for theaters to stay alive, but then again, it never has been.

The Twin Cities hit its all-time high of movie theaters way back in 1916, when 120 of them were in operation across the metro. Ever since then, they’ve been on the decline, and cinema enthusiasts have been in a proportionally increasing tizzy over the losses.

Landmark Theatres is holding down Southwest’s cinema outpost with the Lagoon, although the company has weathered some tough times recently. Most notably, Landmarkwas evicted from the Uptown Theatre in 2021 by the owners of the building over allegations of unpaid rent. The company has faced similar run-ins over rent backlog and a bizarre instance of movie theater equipment theft with landlords in its Los Angeles and New York locations. The Uptown Theater is now owned by Armory, LLC. Both Landmark Theaters and the Lagoon Cinema declined to participate in this story.

The Uptown Theater, now under the ownership of Armory, LLC. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

The Lagoon showed “Barbie” seven times each day of opening weekend, double the showings the theater had of other hit movie openings this summer. Crowds showed up in kind, ready for a trip to Barbieland.

Rajan Nayar was sitting at a bus stop outside the Lagoon after seeing the film, wearing a matching two-piece sweatsuit, basketball shoes, and pink makeup to complete his Ken look. He said he came to the Lagoon to see “Barbie” with several family members as much for the experience of it all—the dressing up, the chance to be part of a relevant cultural event, the air of celebration—as the actual movie.

Chandra Baca and Rajan Nayar pose in their Barbie outfits after seeing “Barbie” at Lagoon Cinema on July 22. Photo by Ellie Zimmerman

“My parents brought me to the Lagoon when I was young,” Nayar said. “It used to play artsier movies, and now it plays more popular movies, which is fine. But I did like it when it played movies that were harder to find than other places.”

Both Nayar and another “Barbie” moviegoer, Tyler Lifke, used the words “better than some random AMC” when describing their choice to come to the Lagoon. While Landmark owns 32 movie theaters nationwide and is in turn owned by New York multi-billionaire Charles Cohen, it has the feel of a small, local venue, with only five screens and a name that harkens back to an actual local venue, the Uptown Theatre (which was called The Lagoon until 1929).

Lifke said that when he goes to the Lagoon to see a movie, he goes “mostly for the social and cultural experience, and to see things that everybody else is also seeing and talking about,” adding that while “Barbie” provided a particularly good opportunity for that, that kind of energy is “hard to replicate.”

Emma Coates and Tyler Lifke pose outside the Lagoon Cinema in their Barbie outfits on July 22. Photo by Ellie Zimmerman

Despite the constant threats of obsolescence that harangue American movie theaters and the recent gutting of some theaters nearby, both the cinephiles and the casual weekend moviegoers of Southwest still have a dependable place to go for their movie fix. If the opening weeks to “Barbie” are any indication, there’s a way to make it last.