San Francisco Chronicle
Survival of theater — and other local businesses — up to us
On a recent day, the 4 Star Theater’s blue marquee advertised the 2005 romantic comedy-drama, “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” The choice was unintentionally ironic considering how few people are frequenting the theater since its reopening three months ago.
Not me. Not you. And certainly not everyone we know.
Adam Bergeron of CinemaSF, which runs the 4 Star Theater, knew committing time and money to lovingly restore the 1913 independent movie house on Clement Street in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood was a gamble in the best of times. But opening it during a pandemic that drove people to avoid cinemas in favor of watching movies on their couches was an even bigger risk.
So far, it hasn’t paid off. Some screenings have been downright dismal.
“We showed ‘Wonder Woman’ three times last weekend to a total of six people,” Bergeron said with a sigh. A recent showing of “Love and Basketball” saw one person turn up. More popular films, like a Jackie Chan festival, have seen crowds, if you can call them that, numbering in the teens.
You could look at Bergeron’s predicament and shrug. Times change, and you can’t force people to buy tickets to repertory theaters.
But I see it another way: We can’t expect San Francisco’s quirky small businesses — its movie houses, its bookstores, its galleries and bars — to survive if we don’t support them. We can’t lament the legions of commercial vacancies dotting our neighborhoods and not patronize the small businesses that are toughing it out. We can’t revel in knowing
that Green Apple Books and the 4 Star exist in our city, but spend all our cash on Amazon and Netflix.
To that end, Bergeron, who also operates the Balboa and Vogue theaters, hopes the community will rally around the 4 Star by donating to a new GoFundMe drive to help the fledgling theater survive its rocky beginning.
And I’ll join The Chronicle’s culture critic Peter Hartlaub and arts and culture columnist Tony Bravo to host three screenings of movies filmed in San Francisco next month, one apiece at the 4 Star, Balboa and Vogue. (With drag queens, costume contests and a bagpiper, naturally, because it doesn’t get more San Francisco than that.)
The theater’s woes come at a difficult time for movie theaters in general. They seem to be a big casualty of the pandemic with far fewer customers than before and Hollywood making fewer films to lure people inside. Even the iconic Castro Theater struggled to make a profit on films before the pandemic, and its fate remains uncertain.
Alfonso Felder, an executive vice president for the San Francisco Giants, founded the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation to save old movie houses. The nonprofit owns the Vogue, maintains the leases on the Balboa and Opera Plaza Cinemas and was instrumental in preserving a host of other cinemas around the city. He said theaters are facing a challenging time, but he’s hopeful they’ll survive.
“The public still cares,” he said. “There’s still a real passion for them.”
Even non-movie buffs should care about the 4 Star surviving. It could be an anchor of its neighborhood that provides jobs and tax revenue for a struggling city — or it could be yet one more empty building boarded up with plywood. The outcome is up to us.
“When this goes away, it won’t come back,” said Kyle Griffin, a manager at the Balboa. He and other CinemaSF staff met with Bergeron at the 4 Star Monday morning to discuss the theaters’ financial travails and how to fix them.
Called La Bonita when it opened 110 years ago, the 4 Star was run by Frank and Lida Lee from 1992 until they sold it to an anonymous buyer in September 2021. The new owner hired Bergeron to operate it. Bergeron said he and his wife, Jaimi Holker, who co-owns CinemaSF, sunk $200,000 into the restoration and the building’s owner spent twice that much.
“It took longer and cost way more than expected,” Bergeron told me. “It’s amazing how much money you can lose in a short amount of time. You know what I mean? It’s incredible. It just became this free-fall.”
They installed a new screen, new seats, new carpeting, new surround sound and new kitchen appliances in addition to rehabbing the bathrooms and projection booth, installing an HVAC system and restoring the ceiling and lights.
“We also fixed the neon sign, which is now broken again,” Bergeron said. “Neon is a fickle mistress.”
They planned to open last summer, but didn’t complete the construction and inspections until early December. By the time they finally did open, the cost of popcorn had increased 50% from before the pandemic, and even the cost of the oil for popping the popcorn and the soda to wash it down had spiked.
Really, the 4 Star is far more than a place to see an old film. There’s an art gallery inside that’s currently showing “More is More,” an exhibit featuring 259 Bay Area artists. There’s bagels and espresso in the mornings and pizza on Friday nights. There’s beer and wine. And there’s awesome merchandise including new Tshirts with the theaters’ names written in the famous Muni worm font.
Bergeron, who’s always been creative in the way he runs his theaters, is brainstorming ideas to bring people back.
He’s talking about renting the theater out for birthday parties, live comedy shows, music events, corporate groups’ meetings with their Power Point presentations shown on the big screen and video game days in which people play their favorite games on the screen.
Plus, he’s not giving up on movies, but trying to enhance them when he can. Recent screenings of “Twilight” accompanied by live drag shows drew crowds. Tyler Butler, who moved from Bend, Ore., to manage the 4 Star, said he thinks of independent movie houses as community hubs where people can make memories.
“There’s something irreplaceable about being in a room with a group of people experiencing a movie together,” he said. “I’ll remember a movie that I watched in a packed house far better than the hundreds of movies I’ve watched in my bed or on the couch.”
Or, as Balboa manager Jody Washington put it, “Date nights still happen.”
Michael Blythe, manager of the Vogue, said the best way to support movie houses is to hit the snack bar. Theaters barely break even showing movies, but can make profits on concessions.
“Even just walking in the door and buying a large popcorn is good,” Blythe said.
So buy a movie ticket. And a tub of popcorn. And a T-shirt. And remember how lucky we are to still have the 110-year-old 4 Star and its bright blue marquee.
“It’s a miracle that we’re here at all,” Butler said. “I want that to be true as long as possible.”