The organization that has kept the Balboa and Vogue cinemas alive over the last decade is in some bad financial straits after taking a gamble on a third historic neighborhood theater. It's now reaching out for the public's help.
If you ask most residents of San Francisco whether they appreciate — or even love — the fact that the city still has some intact and operational neighborhood cinemas, they are likely to respond enthusiastically. But, of course, like so many things, we don't always put our money where our mouths are, and what we all may agree is a nice and lovely thing to have isn't necessarily where we spend our time every weekend.
Death knells and endangerment warnings regarding small movie houses in San Francisco date back well over a decade, and in recent years we have in fact lost a few. The Clay Theater in Pacific Heights gave up the ghost just before the pandemic in early 2020, and a year later we learned that the CineArts at Empire was permanently closing in West Portal. Neither theater has had any rescuers rush to save them in the ensuing years.
The Roxie in the Mission has many passionate devotees, and that theater's been saved from the brink a few times. The Castro Theatre is under new management which hopes to make it more of a full-time music/comedy venue and part-time movie house, removing its downstairs seating — something which a coalition of activists and neighborhood groups are still doing battle over, with some insisting that it should remain a space for repertory cinema. (The CEO of Another Planet Entertainment, Greg Perloff, told Hoodline last year that everyone's support for repertory cinema is all well and good, but they can't afford to operate a 1,400-seat theater like that to show a film if "only 12 people show up," which was certainly the case for some of screenings in the Castro's earlier incarnation, pre-2020.)
Even Alamo Drafthouse — the seemingly successful and relatively young movie chain based in Austin which took over and renovated the New Mission Theater seven years ago — filed for bankruptcy during the pandemic. They managed to exit bankruptcy a few months later in 2021.
So it's no surprise that CinemaSF, the nonprofit organization that has run the Vogue and Balboa theaters for over a decade, has seen some financial strain. The Chronicle's Heather Knight spotlighted the organization today, saying that she and some Chronicle coworkers are going to be hosting some special screenings of SF-shot movies at the renovated 4 Star Theater in the coming weeks, to give them a boost.
And the organization has launched a GoFundMe campaign in order to recover from the financial hole the 4 Star project apparently put them in.
"We have worked to keep the Balboa and the Vogue Theaters thriving for the last 12 years, and more recently we have partnered with 4Star4Arts to revitalize the historic 4Star neighborhood theater on Clement Street in San Francisco, ensuring another cinematic home for all manner of people and all range of shared experiences," they write on the crowdfunding page. "We truly believe our work to be vital to the cultural fabric of the various communities we serve... and we are proud to offer what we can to keep this city's historic venues vibrant and sanguine."
But, they say, because "construction and equipment costs have significantly increased," and "maintenance on century-old buildings has become more costly," they find themselves "unexpectedly in a position where our endeavors to save another neighborhood theater for San Francisco — the wonderful 4Star — has depleted our finances and left us in an unsustainable situation."
We learned back in September 2021 that CinemaSF was taking on the project to rejuvenate the 4 Star, with ringleader Victor Bergeron saying at the time that when a neighborhood has one of these little movie theaters still intact, "it really sets that neighborhood apart."
But now, he tells the Chronicle that very few people have been patronizing the 4 Star since it reopened for business.
"We showed Wonder Woman three times last weekend to a total of six people," Bergeron tells the paper.
Bergeron says that he and his wife sunk $200,000 into the restoration of the 4 Star, and the anonymous owner who bought it in 2021 invested around $400,000. The construction process went long, and Bergeron laments, "It’s amazing how much money you can lose in a short amount of time."
Given all that, the GoFundMe is only seeking $100,000 as of now, and as of this writing it's raised a quarter of that. The campaign is billed as a "One Time Ask in Support of CinemaSF."
Of course, ultimately, they need moviegoers to show up and buy tickets at all three theaters if they're going to survive long-term — not to mention they have a fourth theater aiming to reopen this year, the Park Theater in Lafayette, which is taking donations through the Park Theater Trust.
As Knight writes in the Chronicle, "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."
So, remember that the next time you're looking for something to do out in the Richmond.