“Life isn’t like in the movies. Life … is much harder.”

So said the wise film projectionist in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 movie “Cinema Paradiso.” In March 2020, film theaters across the globe shuttered as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in earnest.

In an effort to adapt, many independent theaters transitioned to a virtual screening model.

“Surprisingly, even though our theater was closed for most of 2020, it was still an extremely busy year for The Roxie,” says Lex Sloan, executive director of the historic, nonprofit Roxie Theater, which is more than 100 years old. “Within two weeks of shutting down, we opened Roxie Virtual Cinema and began programming a dynamic slate of films as a way to continue to engage with our audiences.”

By the end of 2020, The Roxie had screened more than 200 virtual titles and hosted 30 artists and filmmakers in conversation. “Virtual Cinema wasn’t lucrative,” Sloan says, “but it was a great way to keep our members and patrons engaged!”

Roxie executive director Lex Sloan, standing in front of the Roxie Theater box office on 16th Street in San Francisco, says even though its doors are open, the cinema will continue to offer virtual screenings for the time being. (Photo courtesy Roxie Theater)

The Roxie also partnered with Sundance Film Festival to bring screenings to Fort Mason Flix, a series of drive-in films hosted by the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.

Meanwhile, behemoths struggled — Cineworld suffered a $3 billion loss in 2020 —inspiring skepticism as to whether the movie theater industry could revive itself, already compromised by the rise of streaming services.

Beloved theaters went dark. The streets fell quiet. Fear and mourning tainted the air.

Hope was not lost, however.

“STAY HEALTHY AND SAFE,” read The Castro Theatre marquee. “WE’LL BE BACK SOON.” As promised, The Castro reopened on June 26 and 27 to screen a fleet of films for the 45th annual Frameline festival, known as “the most prominent and well-attended LGBTQ+ arts program in the Bay Area.” The Roxie, too, hosted several Frameline features, as it has done every year for over four decades.

Good tidings surged as Bay Area favorites like Balboa Theater and The Vogue reopened in early June. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, previously in financial freefall, emerged from bankruptcy under the new direction of Altamont Capital Partners, an acquisition managed by Fortress Investment Group LLC and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League. Formerly subject to a slew of layoffs and cutbacks as a result of the pandemic, the dine-in cinema chain has since announced its intention to open five new theaters within the next year. (The Mission Street Alamo is scheduled to reopen on Aug. 13.)

Audiences returning to the Roxie Theater get to enjoy the upgrade its lobby received during the pandemic shutdown. (Photo courtesy Roxie Theater)

Additionally, the COVID-19 closures were not entirely destructive. Longstanding theaters like The Roxie seized the opportunity to make several renovations.

“The lobby has new carpet and tile, a fresh coat of paint and much-needed [Americans with Disabilities Act] improvements,” Sloan says. “Thanks to a generous grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, we now have air conditioning and increased air filtration.”

The Roxie also launched its “Take A Seat on 16th St.” campaign, with the aim to replace its secondhand seating (originally from the Coronet Theatre) with “state-of-art” seats designed by Irwin Seating Company.

“I believe The Roxie not only survived the pandemic, but found new ways to thrive,” Sloan says.

On May 21, The Roxie reopened with a screening of “Cinema Paradiso,” the winner of an audience choice poll. This screening was followed by David Lynch’s “Eraserhead,” frequently shown as a Roxie midnight feature in the 1970s and ’80s. On May 22, “Eraserhead” was presented in all its surreal, sinister glory in 35mm. The first screening opened with a Media Meltdown drag show, described as “jaw-dropping” by Sloan.

Audiences are finally seeing films inside San Francisco’s historic, independent movie houses, like the Roxie. (Photo courtesy Roxie Theater)

On July 17, Lynch will return to The Roxie with a 35mm screening of “Mulholland Drive.” Other mid-July screenings include Barbet Schroeder’s “Barfly,” as well as “Linda and The Mockingbirds,” presented by Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy and the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.

In early August, The Roxie will screen Beth B’s “Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over,” with an in-person visit from Lunch herself. David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” a 4K restoration of Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Castle of Cagilostro” and Pablo Larraín’s “Ema” will also be screened this summer.

The Roxie is currently operating at 50% capacity with limited showtimes. Masks remain required for entry, but can be removed while eating and drinking within the theater. Meanwhile, the Roxie Virtual Cinema will continue to offer streaming options.

“The Roxie’s doors were closed for 434 days, and despite the difficulty, I never doubted that we would reopen,” Sloan says.

“Patrons have told me that it feels so good to be home, finally.”

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