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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Independent theaters are reimagining themselves as community spaces

 The 4 Star theater on January 25th, the sold out first night of their mini Michelle Yeoh tribute festival.
Paul C. Kelly Campos
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The 4 Star theater on January 25th, the sold out first night of their mini Michelle Yeoh tribute festival.

This story aired in the March 29, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard. If you are able, please press the play button above.

Movie theaters are struggling to draw in even half the audiences they had prior to the pandemic. Just last month, both San Francisco and Berkeley saw theaters shut down. That’s why film lovers have welcomed the reopening of the 4-Star theater in San Francisco’s Richmond district – after nearly 3 years of closure. But independent repertory theaters, like 4-Star, are adapting and becoming even more community-centered.

"Now theaters, they're small, they're feisty, they have to be independent, they have to be really sensitive and relevant to the community they're in because that's where they're going to get their business."
Woody LaBounty

The 4-Star theater only re-opened in December, but their January 25th screening of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” during a mini Michelle Yeoh festival was sold out and the atmosphere was electric. Patrons, regardless of if it was their first or tenth time at the 4-Star, were excited to be at the recently renovated theater.

“I mean, I'm extremely biased but seeing a movie in a cinema is magic,” says 4-Star projectionist Linda Scobie. “You're immersed in the cinematic world. When you're at home there's...so many distractions.”

In September 2021, an anonymous patron acquired the 4-Star property and agreed to let the theater operations company, CinemaSF, run it.

Adam Bergeron is CinemaSF’s co-owner and operator, “for about the first 10 years we operated the Balboa and the Vogue theater and now we have added the 4-Star in.”

According to Adam, there are many obstacles standing in the way of successfully running an older theater like the 4-Star. From the expensive repair of antiquated electrical systems to the upkeep of the Balboa’s neon marquee after recent storms.

“These businesses at the very best are just bump along break-even businesses, and it doesn't take too much for them for the house of cards to sort of fall and then the finances aren't good. And then it's really hard to dig out of those holes once you get there” Bergeron says. “And you were always playing a cat and mouse game with the money. And that's just the way that it is. And you have to just be dedicated to continuing to run them. And the goal is to save these theaters and to keep them for posterity.”

He explains that, prior to the pandemic, The Balboa made a lot of its money showing first-run blockbuster movies, like Marvel and Disney films. The pandemic pushed many studios to a straight-to-streaming model, so independent theaters now depend almost entirely on their unique repertoires, driven by community interest.

“During the pandemic, when we had boarded up the Balboa the way many people had boarded up their businesses, and we painted a mural on the boards. And part of what we did is we made a chalkboard and it just said, 'What movies would you like to see when we reopen?’” Bergeron says. “And we spent a long time taking pictures of it every day and erasing it and then making a little spreadsheet about what movies just people said they wanted to see. Very inexact science because it really resulted in the same people over-and-over again requesting the same movies but we knew that they were interested in those movies.”

Some of these movie recommendations come straight from random on-the-street encounters.

“Part of it too, we live in these communities we’re here too. And so you literally run into people on the street. And they say 'you should show repo man.' And we go, 'all right, that sounds good. I like repo man.' So a lot of it comes from that,” he says.

"Part of me thinks about the fact we don't even know all the ways yet, you know that it's still, we're in transition back to welcoming audiences in our theater. And so I think the future is still really unknown on a lot of levels."
Lex Sloan

And Adam says he's seeing younger and younger people come out to the movies, so he and CinemaSF Operations Director, Chloe Ginnever, are really listening to young staff members about the programming they want to see.

According to Ginnever, CinemaSF regularly holds meetings with their staff to ask them what they would want to see on their theaters monthly programming. She stated that these meetings often lead to the creation of recurring series that individual employees become responsible for.

“What we found is people are definitely more inclined to come to special events. So that's what we’ve shifted towards,” Ginnever says. “And just trying to get creative with drag shows, we play Twilight every month now and that's been a big hit. Selling t-shirts and just making it a cool experience for people to come to.”

Across town at the Mission District’s Roxie Theater, Executive Director Lex Sloan is reflecting on the ways the pandemic has impacted moviegoing.

“Part of me thinks about the fact we don't even know all the ways yet, you know that it's still, we're in transition back to welcoming audiences in our theater. And so I think the future is still really unknown on a lot of levels.” Sloan says.

According to Lex, since the onset of the pandemic, she and other small theater operators regularly brain-storm on collaborative ideas — such as a “Cinema passport” to independent theaters — as well as trying to figure out how they can show complementary programming.

“Theaters like ours aren't in competition and instead when we work together and collaborate and support each other, we grow the cinema culture and movie goers in San Francisco. And so our success and their successes are mutually beneficial,” Sloan says.

Lex says, the Roxie has never depended on large first-run movies but has historically drawn-in crowds through special events and programming.

One such series being Roxcine, a year-round program for Spanish-language films from Spain, Latin America and the U.S. Latinx community – like the film, “Unicorn Wars,” directed by Alberto Vasquez. The program was spearheaded and founded by the Roxie's Director of Programming, Isabel Fondevila.

“A huge part of our responsibility is to listen to our audiences and say, you know, what do you want to see what kind of films are you eager good to come enjoy or be challenged by the Roxie and being deeply rooted in the Mission District it just makes perfect sense that we prioritize having films on our calendar that that speak to the people that live in this neighborhood,” Sloan says.

And that means using theaters to host things other than movies — like live events neighbors want to attend.

Back at the 4-Star, local historian Woody LaBounty gives a lecture on “Movies in the Richmond.” And He ends it by leading the crowd in singing the theme song for the now-shuttered Alexandria theater. Woody founded the Western Neighborhoods Project, so I journeyed out to their office to ask about the history and future of neighborhood theaters in the Richmond.

“I grew up in the Richmond District of San Francisco. And in the early 70s, even in the early 80s, I could attend, at any point, seven movie theaters to see a movie. I could walk there from my house,” LaBounty says.

He says, theaters were traditionally centers of commerce in neighborhoods.

“I mean, they mostly set up on commercial corridors that already had a lot of pedestrian traffic,” he says. “People going to the hardware store or the grocery store, and they could maybe stop and see a movie, but they were a little commercial drivers themselves.”

He gives an example: the Coliseum theater on Clement street, where he grew up.

“The clothing store across the street was called the Coliseum, stores would name themselves after the theater. It was such a center of the community,” LaBounty says. “I'm old enough to remember, if you ask somebody out on a date, or you were going to go out for an evening, having a movie be the centerpiece of the date was a big part of it. But you would go to dinner beforehand at a local restaurant, you would maybe go have a drink or an ice cream or something after the movie. So there was an interdependence of commerce with the movie theater as sort of the tent post of the night's evening.”

In the years following WW2, around 90 million people saw at least one film a week at a theater But those numbers dwindled with the invention of television through the ‘50s and ‘60s, then with the rise of VCRs in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, then DVDs and now streaming.

“Movies have always been a business so they always have to change. They always have to have a novelty or something that makes it interesting for people to come see a movie. Now theaters, they're small, they're feisty, they have to be independent, they have to be really sensitive and relevant to the community they're in because that's where they're going to get their business,” LaBounty says.

That’s the idea behind the sold-out, all-ages music event held in collaboration with the local label - Speakeasy Records on January 28th. The event featured the local bands: the Tony Molina Band, Kids on a Crime Spree, Monster Treasure, and Galore. And with the opening reception of the 4 Star’s “Hot House Gallery” - a mini art gallery located within the theater - on March 4th, CinemaSF hopes for this to be the first of many collaborative-community events held at the 4-Star.

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