IT’S NO SECRET that these are difficult times for movie theaters.
The long-term Internet-driven switch to watching movies online has only been compounded by the COVID pandemic, which has left many viewers reluctant to sit in crowded indoor spaces during the past three years. Throw in high rents and operating costs in San Francisco, and it’s hard to imagine any theaters surviving.
And yet, despite widespread predictions of blanket demise, a hardy group of theaters is hanging in, drawing dedicated fans and even producing some sell-out screenings.
“They’re more than surviving, a lot of them are thriving, because it really comes down to connecting with your community and knowing your audience and really making them have a specialized experience” said Phil Contrino, the director of research at the National Association of Theater Operators.
For the major theater chains, the outlook remains decidedly cloudy, despite the huge success this summer of big hits like Oppenheimer and Barbie. Even those box-office highs may not reverse a decades-long industry decline. And the gloom is being compounded by the ongoing, industrywide strikes in Hollywood.
Just this year in San Francisco, several theaters, including the Cinemark at the Westfield Mall and the 14-screen CGV, located in a historic building on Van Ness Avenue, closed their doors permanently.
But stop by the Regal Cinema at Stonestown Mall on a weekend, and you’re likely to find surprisingly large audiences — and in many cases young audiences — watching its 12 separate screens, with ticket sales revenue augmented by the hefty markup in popcorn and other refreshments.
And attendance is especially noteworthy at smaller, independent theaters. More flexible than large chains like Regal or AMC, the independents in many cases have innovated and evolved, adding live events like singalongs, other musical performances, and lectures with audience Q&A. These theaters, which sometimes have larger screens than the many individual screening rooms in massive multiplexes, are more likely to keep around older equipment like film projectors. This puts them in a strong position to take advantage of the recent revival of large format films, such as the locally filmed Oppenheimer, which sold out 70mm screenings around the country.
Creating their own communities
To stay financially viable in a tough market, some theaters position themselves as community spaces, carving out a niche through programming or offering a higher-end experience with super-comfy chairs and food and drink menus, such as at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema on Mission Street and Japantown’s Kabuki Cinema.
These theaters in effect create their own communities, and that can help sustain entire neighborhoods.
“Businesses that surround movie theaters need the foot traffic that comes from movies, because people choose to do things before and after,” said Contrino. “It can be retail shopping, or it can be going out for a drink or dinner.”
Running these venues is not without issues. Many are in historic buildings that are nearly a century old and require constant upkeep and expensive renovations.
“Businesses that surround movie theaters need the foot traffic that comes from movies, because people choose to do things before and after. It can be retail shopping, or it can be going out for a drink or dinner.”Phil Contrino, National Association of Theater Operators
In 2024, San Francisco’s largest and most famous independent theater, the Castro, will close for several months as owners Another Planet Entertainment bring the 101-year-old building up to code with the Americans with Disabilities act and install much-needed air conditioning and heating. Additionally, the theater will be taking out hundreds of seats on the orchestra floor, replacing them with removable seats that can be arranged for both film screenings and standing room for live events. And the owners plan to swap the theater’s widescreen, first installed in the 1950s, with a retractable screen to allow for more room on stage.
The Castro has been a landmark for the San Francisco LGBTQ community since the 1970s, hosting drag performances and the annual Gay Men’s Chorus “Home for the Holidays” concert each December. Removing the seats has created controversy among those who say the theater’s historic design and legacy as a movie palace should not be tinkered with, but the Castro’s owners say it’s essential to ensuring its financial viability.
“I’m never surprised by the passion and love that the LGBT and film community has for the Castro Theatre,” said David Perry, a spokesman for Another Planet and a resident of the Castro District since the 1980s. “I share that passion. I’m glad that that we are able to finally make people understand that the plan being put forward isn’t going to lessen the historic nature of the Castro Theatre. It’s going to allow it to continue for another 100 years.”
Perry said the Castro had already moved away from the daily rep screening schedule in recent years. Despite the theater’s increased focus on live programming, Perry says that at least a third of events there will continue to be film screenings.
“Now it won’t just depend on filmgoers, although there is a healthy schedule of films being planned. But the things that are needed to make a building and a business financially sustainable also are going to be done,” Perry said. “They’re going to be doing concerts, they’re going to be doing spoken word events, they’re going to be doing special events.”
Roxie shows moxie
Smaller venues, like the Roxie Theater located in the Mission District, can stick a little closer to their roots in screening independent films. Lex Sloan, Roxie’s executive director, says that she and her staff often look through the archives to the theater’s schedule from the 1970s and ’80s for inspiration.
“We look at the Roxie as much more than just a movie theater. We look at it as a community space, a hub for artists and cinephiles,” she said.
Sloan noted that the Roxie has confronted its share of challenges in the 111 years it has operated, having faced the threat of closure several times over the years. It was, at times, a German-language cinema and a porno theater, before becoming a hub for arthouse film in the 1970s. In 2009, the Roxie became a nonprofit, which Sloan says helped the business survive. Today, its arthouse legacy continues, with specialization in independent films and those made by local filmmakers.
“The movie business has evolved a great deal in the last 50 years, so staying current with demand trends and what’s being made by filmmakers is really important to us,” Sloan said. “What makes the Roxie really unique and sets us apart is that you’re not going to find first-run Disney films or the newest Marvel movie at the Roxie. Instead, you’re going to find 15 different titles a week.”
The Roxie operates on a membership program, and Sloan said its unique programming has attracted a dedicated crowd of regulars. She likens the Roxie to a dive bar, where the staff gets to know their regulars by name.
“They come to multiple screenings a week or month, and we start to get to know them,” Sloan said. “It gets to the point where we know their names, we have their coffee with one sugar ready for them at concessions when we see them at the box office, and our staff and members chat after screenings.”
That sense of community keeps the theater afloat, Sloan added.
“We often think of our marquee shining and lighting up the neighborhood as a beacon of independence and independent thought and art and places where you can find the weird and wonderful things that make San Francisco so special.”
Ready to take a chance
Adam Bergeron is co-owner of CinemaSF, a local theater chain that operates several movie theaters in the city, including the Vogue in Presidio Heights, the Balboa and the 4 Star, both in the Richmond district. He described his theaters as “take-all-comers” establishments, with programming at each theater aimed at targeted audiences and the local community.
Screenings at CinemaSF theaters also often incorporate live elements, like Q&A sessions, drag shows, or live music inspired by the movies on screen.
“It’s nice to be an independent entity, where you get the leeway to take a chance and work with your community to see if these things work or not,” Bergeron said.
Bergeron is no stranger to downturns in the industry, having gotten into it in the early 2010s, when theaters across the country were making the expensive transition from film projectors to digital, leading to many closings. He said he has tried to think of his theaters as community spaces, and that businesses like independent repertory theaters are why people choose to live in cities like San Francisco.
Although many of CinemaSF’s theaters focus on screening classic films, they also do show first-run movies like Barbie or Oppenheimer, which help keep them afloat.
“You don’t have to make a special poster for each event and really push it and market each one individually, you’re just participating in what the world is also doing.”
Bergeron, who owns the Outer Richmond restaurant The Laundromat, admits that his theaters are not the most profitable business he owns, but that they are sustained by San Francisco’s unique film community.
“It’s impressive. There’s definitely a nice culture of movie going and theater supporting,” Bergeron said. “A theater like the Balboa, or the Vogue or the 4 Star, there’s no real reason that in 2023 they still exist, other than the largesse of the people in the city who have decided to support the business and keep them alive,” said Bergeron.
During the pandemic, despite showing no movies, CinemaSF theaters sold popcorn, beer and merchandise on the sidewalk outside, a move that kept the lights on and staff paid.
“It was a little bit of a miracle in that way,” Bergeron said.
“A theater like the Balboa, or the Vogue or the 4 Star, there’s no real reason that in 2023 they still exist, other than the largesse of the people in the city who have decided to support the business and keep them alive.”Adam Bergeron, CinemaSF
Finally, local movie theaters get a boost from festivals like the LGBTQ Film Festival, the Silent Film Festival and the Jewish Film International, all of which help to build community and attract new audiences.
And while operators acknowledge that the future is uncertain, after years of creative thinking to combat industry downturns they remain hopeful that the movie theater experience will remain.
Prevailing wisdom holds that younger people prefer watching movies at home, but Bergeron said that he has been encouraged by the age of the crowds at screenings, another sign that points to the industry’s survival.
“We’ve found that we have a younger audience that are real cinephiles,” Bergeron said. “And that’s really exciting.”