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Film Fatale: Dark times for independent movie theaters

Photo courtesy of Flickr user pix.pls

Take a walk down any major street in San Francisco and you’ll see them: dead movie theaters. Corpses. It’s hard not to shudder when you walk past one – the doors locked and covered with plywood, the entrance collecting tin cans and old newspapers. The theater’s once grand marquee, now deprived of the electricity needed to power the lights, seems gaudy and hubristic. These are dark times for movie theaters.

On July 25, 2011, The Red Vic Theater became the city’s latest victim. It had just turned 31 years old. When I arrived on the scene – San Francisco’s iconic Haight Street – the theater lay in critical condition. One of the Red Vic’s guardians, Jack Rix, let me in to examine the victim, his theater. It was a bright sunny day, and Rix seemed to be in a relatively cheerful mood, despite the recent tragedy.

Once inside, I saw they were doing some emergency reconstructive surgery to keep the Red Vic alive.

“This is the old Red Vic auditorium. The permanent fixed seats have all been taken out. They were sort of like church pews, which we always thought was quite appropriate because this was the Temple of Film,” Rix said.

Back in the projection room, the heart of the theater, it appeared that the Red Vic had a bum ticker.

Rix explained, “We’re finding we need to take out the old Red Vic projector, the 35 mm. Apparently, what they’re saying is they’re going to quit making 35 mm movies as of next year.”

“They,” meaning the Hollywood movie industry. Tinseltown. And when they go digital, it’s all digital, everywhere. A brand new digital projector for the Red Vic could easily cost $70,000 – an expensive procedure with a small chance of success in this case.

As I poked around in dusty corners of the old theater, one fact became clear – the Red Vic would never be the same. I needed to know more about the theater’s past. Rix was happy to oblige.

“The Red Vic was so eclectic, we played everything. We would show a political documentary, then a second run title, then something crazy like The Room, the Citizen Kane of bad movies. We always tried to program what we called ‘Red Vic films’ and it was something you could never define. Sometimes it was high art, sometimes it was low art, but it was always film as art.” Rix said the audience for these screenings steadily declined. “Toward the end, we probably had a group of maybe 20 or 30 people, on a good night, who would still show up for the movies.”

The theater was dying. Slowly. Even more disturbing, Rix seemed to believe that the Red Vic was just the latest in a series of attacks. He pulled out the documents that appeared to prove it.

“This is interesting, looking at the San Francisco movie list, there are all these downtown theaters - The Electric, which I don’t even remember, the Embassy, St. Francis 1 and 2, and the Strand - those are all gone. The Alexandria’s gone, the Alhambra’s gone, the Balboa is still going, thank goodness.”

Rix’s list continued on an on, but I had heard what I needed. The Balboa was a living witness. I was on my way.

Located in San Francisco’s outerlands, The Balboa is the westernmost theater in the continental US. Its massive marquee shines through the fog like a beacon. And it was there, in a closet-sized office, that I found the man I was looking for. Roger Paul is the general manager of the Balboa Theater. On the day of our meeting, he was wearing a bowler cap and a white t-shirt.

I asked him if he knew anyone who might want to see the Red Vic dead.

“You know, back in the day, two theaters that really had a fierce competition with each other at one time were the Red Vic and the Roxie,” said Paul, contemplatively.

Was that it? An inside job? A fierce rivalry between two theaters that ended with the Red Vic beaten and bloodied? No. Not here. These days, independent theaters have bigger fish to fry.

“I think I speak for all the theaters – we are not the competition, we are not the enemy,” Paul clarified. “For us, I think it’s all just a question of cooperating and promoting each other as best as possible.”

So, if they’re in cahoots, who is the enemy? Did this go all the way to the top? Were the big film studios squeezing the life out of indie theaters, one by one?

Paul continued, “They’ve always been strange bedfellows, where there’s been a lot of distrust... But I think that the entire industry is in flux right now. None of us can coast, whether it’s the studios, the exhibitors, the chains, the large circuits and most definitely the smaller neighborhood theaters.”

I needed to get back to the fundamental facts of the case. The people of San Francisco seemed to love the idea of indie movie theaters, but Paul was quick to remind me, “Warm and fuzzies don’t pay the PG&E bill. You need to have regular attendance.”

The Balboa has tried arthouse movies and it used to show double features, but over time, the people stopped coming. “It becomes a lesson that the quality of a movie doesn’t necessarily correlate to the size of the audience. And after you have enough busts showing all these great movies, you start to move away from them,” Paul said.

So the Balboa has started to drift a bit toward the same fare the big chain multiplexes survive on – blockbusters, romantic comedies, and star vehicles.

“Again, you want to show the best movies that you can, and that you’re proud of, but that people want to see and that they don’t look at and say, ‘Oh that sounds great, I gotta put that on my queue.’ You want the response to be, ‘That sounds great, let’s head down to the theater tonight, honey.’”

There was something about what he said. A clue. A … queue. Netflix queue... Rix had mentioned something about home movies, too.

Thinking back on our conversation, I remembered Rix explaining, “When Netflix started mailing the videos directly to homes, I noticed that our audience shrunk a little bit. And then when they started streaming, I really noticed. It seemed like the floor dropped out.”

There it was, the murder weapons: home theaters, couches, Netflix. But who was the killer? Could we trace the trail of blood all the way back to a home entertainment service?

No. DVD rentals don’t kill theaters, people do.

People, like Jack Rix, the oh-so-friendly caretaker of the Red Vic! I raced back to the theater and hauled him in for questioning.

“You know, it’s funny, even if you talk to people who work at movie theaters, usually we admit, if we’re taking a lie-detector test, that we do stream films and we do watch at home,” Rix admitted.

I had it: the confession. It was Rix all along. Rix and all his movie-streaming cohorts. But my charge would never stick in court. “Look, your Honor – a nation of people all not going to the movies! Throw ‘em in the stir!” No way. The only thing left to do was fight back. Arm the few remaining theaters with their own deadly weapons: beer, wine, local food, a sense of community.

As I canvassed the city, I noticed one theater was way ahead of me. For years, the Kabuki Theater in Japantown has been experimenting with the art of movie showing.

I met up with a woman named Nancy Gribler, Vice President of Marketing for Sundance Cinemas. She works on behalf of a larger umbrella organization, the Sundance Group. They run the Sundance movie festival, movie channel, a related resort, but they’ve also been remodeling a handful of old theaters across the country.

The Kabuki used to be in shabby shape – an old AMC struggling to survive. But since 2006, everything in the theater has been replaced except a few carpets. She agreed to walk me through the redesign.

“This is what we call the Big Kabuki, which is auditorium number one,” Gribler said in a hushed voice. Inside I saw a big screen and comfy wool seats. Next, she led me upstairs and showed me their most lethal weapon.

“This is our balcony bar where people can buy drinks and then take them to their seats.” Their facilities were state-of-the-art. Gribler continued to explain their elegant battle plan.

“We don’t have television commercials, all of the seats are reserved, everything here is compostable, recyclable,” explained Gribler. But that wasn’t all. “It’s really important to us that the whole experience is pleasurable and comfortable and you’re there for that moment where the lights go down and you see a movie on the screen it’s just so magical.”

But every theater can’t afford wool seats, liquor licenses, 3D capability… And the Kabuki makes you pay. During prime hours, it charges a $3 “amenity fee” per ticket, on top of the price of the movie itself. That’s not a sacrifice everybody is willing to make.

I ran it by Roger Paul, of the Balboa to see what he thought. He expressed mixed feelings.

“I have heard a lot of snarky comments about reserved seating, but the interesting thing about that – and even though I’m not a fan of reserved seating – is that they did something different and I think that San Francisco theaters can learn from them,” Paul admitted. “None of us, and not even the Sundance Kabuki, can rely on what has worked in the past.”

The bodies of dead theaters are still scattered throughout the city, a testament to a need for change. The Alexandria, the Coronet, the Strand…The names still ring in my ears. It’s been a dark time for independent movie houses in San Francisco, but I can still see a flicker in the projection booth. There’s still life in the old theater. And tomorrow is another day.

This story originally aired on February 23, 2012.