The historic Empire Cinema in West Portal, now over 95 years old, is in search of a new operator, as Cinemark has decided not to renew its lease and to close its CineArts at Empire theater.
Born the Portal Theatre in 1925 and renamed Empire 11 years later, the theater has been a landmark and an integral part of the West Portal neighborhood for a century. The neighborhood and the city are likely to do everything they can to keep the place from staying vacant for too long, but the current state of the movie theater business will make this a tough proposition.
Cinemark took over the theater in 2003, rechristening at "CineArts at Empire," and it has remained one of the better loved arthouse cinemas in the Bay Area. Originally a single-screen theater like many neighborhood cinemas around the city that are now long-gone, the Empire was split into three screens in the 1970s.
This is the first movie theater in San Francisco to fall victim to the pandemic.
KQED reports that the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development is already working on finding a new tenant for the theater.
Longtime neighborhood business owner Maryo Mogannam, president of the San Francisco Council District Merchants Association, tells KQED she is "very sad" about the theater's closure.
"It adds to the symbiotic quality of the neighborhood. Losing it I think is impactful and I would urge whoever it is who has authority to find a replacement theater operator whether it be independent or a large chain," Mogannam says.
San Francisco kept its movie theaters shut for weeks after the state's guidelines would have allowed them to reopen at limited capacity, and then allowed them back open in early October at 25% capacity but with no concession sales allowed — in order to prevent patrons from removing masks indoors to eat or drink. Theater owners balked and most theaters, including CineArts, remained closed because owners said they would lose more money by being open without concessions, which are their primary revenue-driver.
Even before the pandemic began, many small theaters in many major cities had been suffering with competition both from large multiplexes with better amenities, and from increasingly more sophisticated home entertainment systems and streaming video. Theaters across the country, which will now be eligible to apply for some federal pandemic relief after the second stimulus package passed, lost upwards of 90 percent of their revenue last year.
In September, another small Bay Area movie house, the Tiburon Playhouse, announced its permanent closure. It was operated by local chain Cinema West Inc., based in Petaluma, and the company subsequently announced the closure of the Cinema 9 complex in Sonoma.