Houston Chronicle Sunday
Why the River Oaks Theatre matters
Houston film fans may want to prep for another potential disaster, though this one has nothing to do with polar vortexes or ominous blips on the satellite off the coast of Cape Verde.
If, as the Chronicle reported Thursday, Landmark Theatres, the operator of the River Oaks Theatre, and Weingarten Realty, the owner of the land on which the River Oaks sits, can’t come to some sort of resolution over an expiring lease at the end of the month, the curtain may come down for the last time in the historic picture palace. And this would go beyond being just more ancillary damage caused by the pandemic, though the collapse of the movie-exhibition industry in 2020 — box office was down a disastrous 76 percent last year as crowds fled indoor public spaces — no doubt is one reason the River Oaks finds itself in this predicament.
The River Oaks, built in 1939, is an art deco-era architectural treasure (though one in need of some TLC) that has survived Houston’s rapacious bulldozers, ownership changes (Mark Cuban sold Landmark to New York arthouse-film distributors Cohen Media Group in 2018) and the rise of the suburban multiplex. It managed to struggle into the early 21st century relatively intact though it now features three screens instead of just one.
Granted landmark status by the city, it’s the last remaining area theater from the heyday of movie theaters that’s still in daily use for its original purpose. (We’re looking at you, Trader Joe’s, once the Alabama Theatre in a Houston galaxy, far, far away.)
But its loss would cut deeper than design. After all, even if the theater closes, its facade and interior may still stand in some repurposed function. Yet what will go away is the programming, the screening of independent and art-house, foreign and midnight films that might not find a home anywhere else.
Just ask Richard Linklater, the Houston-raised, Austin-based director of such films as “Boyhood” and “Dazed and Confused.”
Last year, he told the British Film Institute about his transcendent River Oaks experiences.
“I would sit really near the screen in those days, in the middle, a few rows from the front — I really like that seat where the whole thing (fills your vision),” he said. “I remember watching ‘Taxi Driver’ for the first time, leaving the theater in a daze and missing the next screening of ‘Mean Streets’… so I had to catch up with ‘Mean Streets’ a year later. I finally figured out the schedule — just never leave.”
When compared to other cities of its size or smaller, Houston — at least pre-pandemic — had relatively few places for
independent film. In Texas, Austin (with several Alamo Drafthouses and the Velvet Crown multiplex) and DallasFort Worth (with multiple Alamo Drafthouses, two Landmark multiplexes, two Angelika multiplexes, the Texas Theatre and the Grand Berry Theater) are far better situated in terms of numbers of screens, but how many of them come out on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis remains to be seen.
There is an Alamo Drafthouse in Katy, and some of the more mainstream chains around Houston do sometimes step into the breach — for example, Studio Movie Grill Pearland has been showing the striking Ivory Coast
film “Night of the Kings” — but it’s much more hit and miss. With the River Oaks, a viewer feels a part of a film community with a sense of a shared experience.
This is especially vital now that Houston’s other outlets for indie film — the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; 14 Pews; and Rice Cinema — are temporarily lights out and doing only virtual screenings. And, sure, many of these indie movies may be readily available for streaming, but watching films that often provoke discussion in the quietude of one’s own pandemic bubble just isn’t the same.
Yes, it is true that, outside of the midnight slot, the films that
Landmark books into the River Oaks are often the most mainstream, PBS-friendly independent movies available. “Blithe Spirit,” based on the Noel Coward play, is there now, and entire animal species probably came and went during the eons that “Lady Bird” took up residence there. The aforementioned venues for indie cinema in Houston certainly are more adventurous.
But that doesn’t make the River Oaks any less special for what it has brought to the city over the years. To quote Linklater, Houston needs the theater to “just never leave.”