Between the proliferation of sleek multiplexes, the overall decline in movie theater attendance, and options like the near-heavenly Alamo Drafthouse, it's surprising that any of San Francisco's classic cinema houses manage to hang in there. Today brings news that two of the city's remaining silver screen houses are in trouble, even as a third rises in a new incarnation.
The recent years have not been kind to San Francisco's old-school movie palaces. Maybe I'm stretching "recent" a bit, as my beloved Coronet closed way back in 2005 but I still feel sad about that on a regular basis as I pass its Institute of Aging replacement. Its Geary compatriot, the Alexandria Theater, closed in 2004 and has sat vacant ever since. A few blocks away, the Bridge has sat empty since 2012. Haight Street's Red Vic closed in 2011, and the space has recently reopened as a bookstore/cafe called The Bindery.
I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting (maybe you can remind me in the comments), but it's unlikely that those are the last tales of cinematic closures we'll hear, as 2016 was reportedly "Hollywood’s Worst Year for Ticket Sales in a Century" and box office numbers as of May 2017 revealed "one of the slowest domestic seasons in years."
It appears that those declining number have hit the historic Balboa Theater, a stalwart on our list of SF's best movie palaces, pretty hard. According to Hoodline, attendance at the Outer Richmond District theater has been so bad that they've suspended several of their regular weekly events, including their Saturday-morning family movie series called Popcorn Palace, their Thursday night classic film series called Balboa Classics, and "Beer Movies Saturdays...an after-hours series pairing a can of Lagunitas with comedies like Super Troopers and Animal House."
Theater operator Adam Bergeron tells Hoodline that in addition to declining box office numbers industry-wide, the Balboa (and its corporate sister, the Vogue) has unique issues as a theater in a century-old structure.
“This year we had a run of bad luck on all of those fronts," Bergeron told Hoodline. "We had a broken pipe issue this winter...some theater flooding during the heavy rains, some broken neon on both the Balboa and Vogue marquees, and some general building maintenance.”
This isn't the first time the Balboa's faced adversity: In 2013, the theater launched a Kickstarter to cover renovations, with the warning that if they didn't reach their goal, they'd close forever. It's unclear if a second such crowdfunding is in the works for the new round of repairs, but Bergeron seems cautiously hopeful, saying “The specialty programming we do is always a break-even affair at best, and we find ourselves in a hole enough right now to curtail these events until we can get back on our feet.”
Another theater that's seen its fair share of peril is the 4-Star, another venue that's always been on our best of list. They faced eviction in 2005, taking their landlords to court in the process. The building's been on sale since 2015, and was most recently offered on Craigslist.
Now, according to SocketSite, the theater's future seems unknown as new sales materials for the 2200 Clement Street location say it is available as of September 2017.
When reached by phone by SFist, a 4-Star staffer declined comment, but confirmed that the theater was still in business. Current and upcoming showtimes can be found here.
"While the new marketing materials for the building note that it could be re-leased as a two-screen theater if so desired," SocketSite writes, "the materials also prominently tout the potential for the theater’s conversion to 'retail sales & services.'"
It might not be as easy as that, though: According to a Chron report from December 10, 2005:
[a] 2004 law requires that any project proposing to eliminate a neighborhood theater will be subject to a conditional-use process -- meaning the owners will have to appear at a public hearing before the Planning Commission and prove that the elimination of a theater will not adversely affect the commercial district in that neighborhood, that the theater was not commercially viable and that the elimination of the theater would not result in the loss of historically significant architecture.
This is a law that was actually created with the 4-Star in mind, as then Supe Jake McGoldrick sponsored the bill with once and future Supe Aaron Peskin, saying then that "We do not look favorably on the death of a neighborhood theater... The interest in losing the 4 Star is somewhere between zero and minus one."
McGoldrick, citing an "overwhelming correspondence" from his constituents, helped shepherd the bill (which was passed 10-1) because of the historical significance of the 4 Star and the theater's original programming -- aside from its schedule of second-run Hollywood, foreign and independent fare, it is the only theater in the United States that shows current Hong Kong movies, often within days of their release in Hong Kong.
"The feeling was so strong, it was obvious," said McGoldrick of the correspondence.
Will McGoldrick and still-Supe Peskin's law save the 4-Star yet again? That's unclear, as is the current demand for more "retail sales & services" on a stretch of Clement that's already beset by empty storefronts.
As noted earlier in this report, many of our old movie houses sit vacant — but one is preparing to rise once more. It was back in 2015 that the historic Harding Theater at 616 Divisadero was purchased by Danny and Doug Marks, the owners of Chicago-based arcade bar chain Emporium.
After a doubtlessly grueling renovation of the art deco era property, they're hoping to open in October, Eater reports. Expect video games, pool, and pinball, as well as "movie screenings, DJ sets, and full-on shows from bands," Eater reports. And while there's a full bar, you'll have to find food elsewhere, as owner Danny Marks tells Eater that “Because we have our hands full with the arcade, the bar, and events, food is not our main focus...We plan to work with all the amazing restaurants in the neighborhood on a bring your own food and catering basis.”