San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Highlights at the Roxie, Balboa and Vogue theaters.
Indie movie theaters beginning to reopen at reduced capacity
On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, the sounds of live jazz wafted up and down Balboa Street in the Outer Richmond District as a small crowd sipped beer, munched on popcorn and moved with the rhythm.
During the final set from Danny Brown and the Noise AllStars in front of the closed entrance to the Balboa Theater, Emily Bridwell and her two young children arrived. As the musicians packed up their instruments, workers wheeled a bigscreen TV out to the theater’s parklet, where Bridwell’s children plopped down to watch a free showing of “Toy Story 2.”
“This theater has been a staple of our COVID life,” Bridwell said. “The kids can’t wait to come up here . ... Our son saw his first movie ever here, and so did our daughter.”
The Balboa’s parklet has been popular, but hardly profitable. That’s why its operators are eager to finally reopen indoors.
But as the Bay Area eases out of the pandemic, will people even want to return inside independent movie theaters after a year of solid streaming at home? And if so, how fast will they come back?
They’re about to find out. The Balboa will become the first San Francisco independent theater to reopen when its annual Godzillafest roars across its two indoor screens on May 14, followed by two big studio films — “A Quiet Place Part II” and “Cruella” — scheduled to arrive Memorial Day weekend.
All other San Francisco indie theaters plan to follow suit a short time later, with the notable exception of the Castro Theatre (more on that in a moment). The
Mission District’s Roxie Theater and the Marina District’s Presidio Theatre are scheduled to reopen May 21, and the Vogue plans to reopen June 11.
Among East Bay indies, the Alameda Theatre & Cineplex reopened April 16, while the Elmwood in Berkeley, one of three Rialto Cinemas in the Bay Area, will reopen Friday, May 7. Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre and the New Parkway have not yet set dates. The New Parkway also has not announced a return to indoor film screenings but has been selling togo gourmet food to patrons.
In the meantime, national chain theaters — such as AMC, Cinemark’s Century and Landmark — have been welcoming back moviegoers for about two months, following county and state health restrictions (an exception is the Alamo Drafthouse’s New Mission theater, which has not set a reopening date). In San Francisco, that means indoor movie theaters can operate at 50% capacity, or up to 200 people for each theater screen, and concessions can be sold.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has said California will lift all restrictions by June 15. But neighborhood independent theaters, often operating on razorthin margins, have to tread more carefully, said Adam Bergeron, who has owned and operated the Balboa for 10 years and also operates the Vogue Theater.
For instance, the Balboa’s two screens have 220 and 154 seats, respectively, and at 50% capacity must come close to selling out to make a profit.
His decision to reopen the Balboa on May 14 is based on San Francisco’s vaccination rate, which shows that most adults will have had at least one vaccine shot by midMay, and the availability of content, especially during a time when film releases have been a moving target. Marvel’s “Black Widow,” for instance,
had been scheduled to open May 7 but is now pushed to July 9.
“It was a little strategic getting to a spot where we felt it would be safe at that point,” said Bergeron, who added that he and his staff have been fully vaccinated. “Showing movies takes a little bit of planning, too, and some promotion.”
To that end, Bergeron is delaying the reopening of the Vogue by a month in part because the big studio musical “In the Heights,” released June 11, “is more of a Vogue movie,” he said. He also wants to concentrate on getting things right at the Balboa and applying any lessons learned to its sister theater.
Frank Lee, owner/operator with wife Lida Lee of Lee Neighborhood Theatres, plans to do the same. The reopening of the fourscreen Presidio, on weekends only at first, will serve as a guide for Lee as he prepares for the eventual reopening of his nearby Marina and the Richmond District’s 4 Star, both twoscreen theaters.
“We’ll have a better hold on the situation,” said Lee, a theater owner for 30 years whose father, Frank Lee Sr., owned theaters in Chinatowns across North America. “We can analyze and say, ‘We’ve got four screens open, do we need another two screens in the next couple of weeks?'”
Meanwhile, the Roxie relies solely on eclectic, indie and foreignfilm programming. The theater is conducting a fan vote at roxie.com to decide the first film to be shown on its indoor screens since the pandemic shutdown. Finalists are “Vertigo,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “Mulholland Dr.”
Director of programming Isabel Fondevila said the theater, which has upgraded its main lobby and bathrooms and installed an air conditioning system, is also starting slow. That means only reopening the main, 232seat theater on weekends and keeping the 49seat Little Roxie, a few doors down on 16th Street, closed for a little longer.
“We’re going to keep (audiences) to about 25%. We want to go low,” Fondevila said. “We’re all very excited. We don’t know how it will all play out, but we are ready.”
The canary in the coal mine for San Francisco indies has been the similarly sized Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, which has been open at 25% capacity since March 5. Manager Dan Zastrow said he has shared his experiences with other Bay Area independent film owners during virtual strategy meetings conducted over Zoom.
Zastrow said that the threescreen art house, run by the California Film Institute, started by not selling concessions — even though Marin County officials allowed it — to keep operations as simple as possible so his staff could get used to implementing COVID protocols.
They are now selling concessions, while keeping the capacity at 25%, and in a hopeful sign of things to come, Zastrow said the theater is selling out many of its screenings.
“It’s like we’re welcoming back family members,” Zastrow said. “These are all people who have been coming here for years or are members of the California Film Institute. Every weekend someone is coming in (saying), ‘It’s my first time back! I’m fully vaccinated and I’m glad to see you guys!' It’s been fun.”
So what about the Castro?
The crown jewel of San Francisco movie palaces turns 100 next year, but longtime owner Steve Nasser — whose father built the theater — said the sheer size of the 1,400seat venue and its business model as the goto venue for big festival events make it a unique situation. “We need to be around 500 to 600 people given the size of the thing to make it work,” Nasser said. “Also, for us, summer has always been the worst quarter. Those are reasons why you don’t rush to go 100% too fast.”
Nasser said that he has not yet decided when to reopen the theater, but he has accepted bookings from Frameline, San Francisco’s international LGBTQ film festival set in June. He also has live, indoor comedy events booked in July and “a full slate of bookings in the third and fourth quarter” of 2021.
Noting that the Castro first opened shortly after the last devastating global health disaster, the Spanish flu pandemic of 191820, Nasser admitted, “I wish my dad were still around. I could talk to him and ask him what the heck happened!”
Still, that the indie theaters are in a position to reopen at all is remarkable. Like many locally owned businesses, they have taken a tapeandstring approach to surviving. Fundraisers, GoFundMe donation drives, a temporary renegotiation of rents, money for personal protective equipment and other governmentfunded relief programs have been crucial.
All the while, the theaters have sought to keep loyal customers engaged. The Balboa’s parklet sells beer, popcorn, candy and memorabilia such as Tshirts, and the theater screens current movies
virtually. The Roxie also has a virtual screening room and has hosted events at the waterfront Fort Mason Flix drivein, including hosting this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Fondevila, Lee, Nasser and Bergeron all said they were fielding questions from longtime customers asking for updates on theater openings, eager to come back.
“Honestly, we’ve gotten to know (our patrons) better during this pandemic,” Bergeron said. “It’s given us an opportunity to get to know them on a bythename basis even more than we did before.”
Many likely have the mindset of Bob Duskis, a longtime moviegoer at the Balboa, who said he can’t wait to get back inside the theater (“I will be here for Godzillafest for sure,” he vowed) even if he’s a little nervous.
“I’m missing that communal experience, but I do feel comfortable that it’s not a full house,” said Duskis, owner of Six Degrees Records, who is fully vaccinated. “It’s going to take a little bit for me to get used to be around a lot of people in an indoor space.”