The 28-year run of SonomaMovies.com, and its sister site NorthBayMovies.com, will come to an end today, as the site’s sole proprietor is calling it quits on aggregating movie showtimes for a five-county, 160-mile stretch of Northern California.
The pandemic has been tough on movie theaters. But it’s also been a drag for hobbyists whose pastimes are following movie theaters, and maintain cult audiences dedicated to the irreplaceable experience of enjoying movies on the big screen. And so it goes for the regional specialty sites SonomaMovies.com and then with NorthBayMovies.com, which started in the mid-1990s, but the Chronicle reports that site operator Bert Towle will cease operating both sites today.
The final curtain is the result of a combination of cratering site traffic, the emergence of streaming services, and improved online tools that have filled what was once a very large void.
https://t.co/8FMtYIPuHp and https://t.co/ijo1osdRDD have been run for free by Petaluma's Bert Towle, who is retiring.@SFChronicle sat down with Towle for an "exit interview":— SFChronicle Datebook (@SFC_Datebook) January 26, 2023
via @BRfilmsAllen https://t.co/4V82bzSoas
“We moved up to Petaluma in ’93 and I discovered when I got here that I couldn’t turn to The Chronicle and find Sonoma County movie times,” Towle says in his Chronicle exit interview. “So I decided to do something about it.”
“I only did Sonoma County at first, then within six months I started getting requests from people who lived in Marin County,” he says. The NorthBayMovies.com sister site grew to cover Napa, Mendocino, and Lake Counties, aggregating movie showtimes for a more than 160-mile stretch of northern California.
When the SonomaMovies.com started in 1994, it was the days before Google even existed, and the dominant internet portals like AOL and Yahoo were a GeoCities-like mess of completely non-localized news and pop culture stories. The most reliable way to get movie showtimes was a huckster-voice phone line called MovieFone, which often took several minutes to get results that were maybe inaccurate if you lived in a small town.
Towle started his sites as quick, no-frills, no-advertising labor-of-love reference guides, which is what they remained for their nearly three-decade run.
“I was just looking at the stats this past week and it appears that my peak was about 2017 and I was doing about 100,000 page views a week,” Towle tells the Chron. “In 2019 it was down to about three-quarters of what the peak had been. And then, of course, in 2020 (the first year of the pandemic) it fell to less than 25% of what it had been, and it still hasn’t recovered. It’s now at about 40% of 2017 (about 40,000 page views a week).”
“Thanks to all the people who've said kind things about the site,” Towle says in his farewell message on both sites. “I've tried to keep it simple and productive.”
Related: Downtown Berkeley’s Last Remaining Movie Theater, the Regal UA, Is Closing [SFist]
Image: Large Theater via Yelp