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The last picture show

The Roxie's imminent eviction leaves the San Francisco film world reeling.

By Susan Gerhard

OSCAR NIGHT, 1998: I am sitting in the Roxie with red carpet and a sea of bursting bustiers rising 24 feet above my head, a half-eaten burrito stuffed into my jacket pocket, as the Academy Awards unravel before my eyes. It's the year of Titanic, and seasick doesn't begin to describe the atmosphere. Projected onto the screen, at far too great a scale, is James Cameron, bellowing, "I am king of the world!" I feel a shriek so loud it rattles my spine. That may be because it's coming from me.

It's not the first time I've come unglued at the Roxie. True, the kinds of movies the 16th Street theater specializes in – subtitled, noir, archival, B-, nonfiction, experimental, niche – can be experienced the polite way, in museum-type settings, where the seats are too precious to be soiled by sodas, the crowds too well-heeled to be interrupted by hisses and sighs, in nine-to-five neighborhoods too empty for loitering. But they are best experienced the rep-house way – with sticky floors and unruly audiences eating out of crinkly bags, tucked into neighborhoods that invite after-hours excesses. If you are one of the few too scared to park your car on Mission Street, shouldn't you have to get the adrenaline rush that can only come from running to your vehicle after a movie's over? Upmarket from the seedy second-run houses that, until recently, so reliably provided unemployed men in trench coats their afternoon entertainment, the Roxie is one of the few independent cinemas with repertory programming left in the Bay Area – and it occupies a singular space within San Francisco, a place where moviegoers can engage with high art, and its low points, and get comfortable enough to rant away as they do it.

Elliot Lavine, the Roxie's programmer, was there too, at the annual "Up the Academy Awards" night in 1998, experiencing the city's primal scream at the box office, the boos building to a tsunami, the communal catharsis. "It got rowdy," he remembers. "The Roxie was ready to capsize."

Four years later, the Roxie is bailing water from the boat again, this time in a very real crisis that could deeply affect the future of filmgoing in San Francisco. On March 15 the business received its fourth eviction notice in four years. Behind five months in rent, the theater's owner, Bill Banning, was asked to pay $35,550 immediately or leave. Its landlord, David Abecassis, had shown some leniency in the past, but his patience may have run out. The Roxie had received a $113,700 grant from the Mayor's Office of Community Development to remodel its office space two doors down from the theater into a 50-seat second cinema. But the money hadn't stretched quite as far as it needed to. After an unexpected electrical upgrade to the space was completed, the Roxie was unable to pay a $17,733 bill from the electrical contractor, and the company placed a lien on the property, effective 60 days after the work was finished.

Eviction notices have come as regularly as the seasons for the Roxie, and in previous dire circumstances the business had been able to pull out of it. Banning tells me that Nicolas Cage, whose career got a bump when the Roxie rescued Red Rock West from straight-to-video purgatory with a theatrical premiere in 1994, returned the favor a few years back by buying 1 percent of the company for $20,000. In the latest episode, filmmaker-activists like Marc Huestis, who's lived just a block from the theater for 25 years, have already begun shilling over e-mail; Huestis says he's raised $1,200 in just two days. Just $48,800 to go.

It's hard not to think of the word "extinction" when you consider places like the Roxie, evolved perhaps too exquisitely, past the point of adaptation to crude market forces. The rep house, with its loyal audience, unique regional programming, and neighborhood consciousness, is a dying breed. You know the food chain: indie swallowed by chain swallowed by multiplex swallowed by consumer; for "other" movies, please look under "nonprofit." We can blame those who prefer to see one of 10 movies playing at the multiplex, which are the same 10 movies playing down the street, which are the same 10 movies playing in the next city and across the country. Is it too much to hope that some of them still appreciate seeing that unknowable indie in an architecturally significant building scented with the odor of its cantankerous past?

Roxie's music

The unpleasant present gives way to that petulant past when Lavine and Banning seat themselves in the lobby of the Roxie and cue up the highlight reel in their heads. The past is standing next to them, mordant, witty, unapologetic, drunk. It's the premiere of Kurt and Courtney, featuring celebrity stalker/documentary hustler Nick Broomfield – surviving slings from Love's legal team – and one of the stars of his film, Hank Harrison, Love's father, who belligerently dresses down an unassuming hippie kid who claimed to know his daughter and just wanted to say hello. The past is Reese Witherspoon, whose film Freeway the Roxie distributed, napping on the floor of their offices. It's Akira Kurosawa, showing up in a limo with cine-scholar turned politician Audie Bock to introduce a documentary about the making of Ran. "He walked in down the aisle, and 300-plus people gave him a standing ovation that went on and on," Banning remembers. "We learned afterwards that he actually became a little frightened."

Then there's Abel Ferrara, AWOL for the sneak-preview screening of his Madonna-Harvey Keitel movie Dangerous Game, which he's supposed to introduce at midnight. "I got into my car and drove to the hotel," Lavine says. "By that time they'd thrown some water on his face and slapped him around a little. We got to the theater, at 20 past midnight. The place was stone quiet; everyone was just sitting there bored and agitated, waiting. He staggered up to the front, and the first question came from this pompous guy in the first row: 'You've made us wait for a half hour, Mr. Ferrara. You owe us an explanation.' There was a rumble through the theater. Ferrara looked at the guy and said, 'If you've got a problem, why don't you just go home?' The theater burst into hysterical laughter."

"We have a playbill from 1934 that echoes what we do currently," Lavine says. "What they were doing then, and probably before, was a neighborhood rep double bill. In the 1934 playbill there was this film from the same year called Mandalay, starring Kat Francis. And 60 years later, almost to the day, we were playing Mandalay as part of our pre-code series. It was spooky."

The oldest operating theater in San Francisco, the venue goes back to 1909, when it was the C.H. Brown theater. Between 1915 and 1933 it went by the Poppy, the New 16th Street, the Rex, the Gem, and the Gaiety, until 1933 brought the Roxie. For a year or two in the mid '70s it operated as a porn house.

Its current story, however, begins in 1976. Robert Evans, who, the story goes, spent a night in jail for managing the Roxie as a porn house, decided with another partner, Dick Gaikowski, that he'd like to turn the venue into a rep house. Peter Moore, now a chef and writer who currently lives in Berkeley, silk-screened posters for their shows and eventually joined them as a partner. He remembers the time as a good one for film in general and rep programming in particular. There were a huge number of theaters – the El Rey, the Parkside, the Cento Cedar, the Richelieu, the Gateway, the Bridge, the Clay, the Surf, the Stage Door (which is now Ruby Skye), the Music Hall, the Larkin, the Times – the original repertory theater in San Francisco – the Strand, the Embassy, and the Vogue, which played art films back then. "It was a different time," Moore says, "because all of the major studios had offices here in San Francisco, and the films were stored here in San Francisco. Repertory film hadn't really been discovered by the studios as a major source of revenue. You could rent the films inexpensively and get the prints from within the city. You could have personal relationships with the studios and subdistributors."

"When we opened the Roxie," he adds, "there were only four businesses open after 7 p.m. between 16th Street and Market – including an adult bookstore, a liquor store, and a bar whose clientele mostly seemed to be junkies. The Roxie was the anchor tenant that built that entire neighborhood. They got people there after dark."

During Moore's tenure there, the building was sold to a man who ran a storefront church just a few doors down. It was the late '70s, the Jim Jones era; churchgoers called their landlord "Daddy." And times were good for art films, almost too good. The Roxie was showing films like Toho Studios' sci-fi Inframan, packing the cinema for a screening of a bootleg print of L'âge d'or, early Devo videos. San Francisco was a hotbed, which led, ironically, to too much competition. When Mikhalkov's Oblomov got a $30,000 advance to play in another theater in San Francisco, Moore says, "I knew things were doomed."

"At one point an employee asked for a raise, and I took her upstairs and showed her the checkbook. 'The reason those numbers are in red,' " he remembers saying, " 'is not because we don't have a black pen. It's because we don't have the money to cover for it yet.' "

By the time Moore left, Anita Monga – now programmer for the Castro Theatre – was ready to take over the job. Monga had become part of the scene in 1979, programming a midnight show of her friend Curt McDowell's films; she designed the calendar graphic, sold popcorn, and stayed around until 1984. "It was an exciting time for filmgoing," she says. "The German new wave was happening, and we lived in the afterglow of the golden age of American film, the late '60s and early '70s – Peckinpah, Scorsese, Rafelson." She left to program the York Theater, and stepping in was a man whose claim to the Roxie was getting on nearly every calendar the one film he was distributing, Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie.

"I put every cent I had into that movie," Banning remembers. He picked that film up from Cannes as a neophyte with no real ambition to distribute film, and he'd arrived at Cannes in 1974 with a press credential from a little-known magazine called Velvet Light Trap. He'd gotten the magazine gig by living in Madison, Wisc., where he'd originally come to work on a Ph.D. in English but stayed on by doing construction jobs and running a repertory theater. He wound up in the Bay Area because one of his best friends lived here, a man named Errol Morris. Together, they started a film society.

"Errol was living in my house in the Berkeley hills," Banning says, "when I came across an article about 500 pets being moved from a cemetery in the peninsula to a cemetery in Napa Valley, and that Chronicle headline became Gates of Heaven." Morris made the kind of history that even the Academy notices; Banning has made another kind throughout his 17 years with the Roxie: drawing pickets for Godard's Hail Mary, upending smug political postures with Waco: The Rules of Engagement, creating cultish fan-club loyalty with its Hong Kong screenings in the mid '90s, and earning admiration from the stalwart for putting up all six and a half hours of Béla Tarr's Sátántangó. The Roxie's always courted controversy, it seems, and when it heard that the theater's friend, William Friedkin, had a film that now topped requests at gay video stores among the group that was supposed to rabidly reject it, the theater decided to rehabilitate the picture, Cruising – and bring on an unhappy Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. On the night of the show, "90 percent of those in line for the film were gay men," Lavine remembers. "There were members of GLAAD there distributing literature, and every one of the men in line politely asked GLAAD to leave them alone."

Industry standards

Talking about the Roxie's current financial crisis, Marc Huestis refers to the old chestnut "They say a rising boat lifts all sails and a sinking boat drowns all people." The theater's perennially on the cusp of capsizing, and its current financial meltdown didn't begin this winter, but it was definitely helped on its way by a slow economy and post-Sept. 11 malaise.

That affected most cinemas in San Francisco, not just the Roxie. Gary Meyer, one of Landmark Theatres' founders, who currently operates the Balboa in the Richmond as a second-run neighborhood theater, says his business slowed in the fall not just because people didn't feel like going out but also because distributors were holding off on opening new films. Multiplexes held on to their films longer, and suddenly movies he was expecting to show at the Balboa disappeared.

Circumstances were particularly hard on theaters that couldn't rely on studio advertising (the ubiquitous billboard-and-bus campaigns) to get crowds in – places like the Roxie, which generally require reviews in newspapers for their jump start. For newspapers in general, Sept. 11 had other repercussions: advertising revenue dried up, the size of many newspapers decreased, and the number of feature reviews they printed, particularly of revivals and more obscure films, diminished. When the Roxie opened three films in a row – Aberdeen, New Rose Hotel, and The Wide Blue Road – without getting any of them reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, disaster hit. "It was a morgue in here for two months," Lavine says. Empty houses are very bad news for theaters. And the back rent is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Roxie was always able to survive downturns with savvy picks for distribution – Red Rock West, Freeway, Genghis Blues, The Good Woman of Bangkok, Nico Icon, Kurt and Courtney, and Vincent. But like all industries, theirs relies on hits, and many times you miss. Finding movies is a difficult process. Typically, Banning scours eight film festivals a year – Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle – watching six films a day until his eyes cross. Though he's generally hosted by the festival he's attending, travel costs have forced him to cut back. "I certainly cut back going to Cannes a couple years ago," Banning says. "If you're not paying your rent, there are other things you're not paying. We owe back taxes. I have huge credit card debt."

"There are pressures on any small business trying to survive in this McWorld. How does the Roxie compete when there are all the majors out there?" asks Marcus Hu, a onetime San Franciscan who used to manage the Strand and now runs the eponymous art-and-gay-film distribution company Strand Releasing from Los Angeles. Hu is nostalgic for the San Francisco film world he grew up in – the Pagoda (then the Pagoda Palace), the York, the Strand – and sympathizes with the Roxie's plight. "People nowadays are getting less and less inclined to spend money and go to a movie; they're so comfortable renting things from Blockbuster."

The Roxie has other problems besides dealing with potholes in the public's attention spans. San Francisco's eager art-film lovers helped build a successful art-house chain that the city really can't complain about in Landmark. The company's got its own problems: as a business named "Landmark," it was, of course, sad that it had to close its cornerstone theater, Berkeley's UC, because it couldn't afford a $300,000 retrofit last year. The years 2000-2001 found the company struggling under the problems of its parent company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. While Meyer says selling to Goldwyn Co. in 1991 had allowed Landmark to grow and operate more like a business, it was subsequently sold off into less-caring hands, until the money problems of a chain of discount cinemas in Dallas, Texas – Silver Cinemas, which owned Landmark at one point – rippled all the way to the bay.

Now under new ownership and old management – 17-year veterans of the pre-Silver-owned company, CEO Paul Richardson and executive vice president Bert Manzari – Landmark is running a successful calendar house at the Lumiere, in addition to its string of art houses (including the Bridge, the Clay, Embarcadero, and Opera Plaza) that make up 50-plus houses throughout the United States. Landmark has a lot of screens to offer distributors and can play movies there for a long time without the constraints of calendar bookings. It's the Roxie's stiffest competition as a theater – as well as its biggest client as a distributor. If the Roxie can get its own second screen finished, those 50 seats might allow it to hold its own films over – and compete.

Survival is an issue for every single-screen or art house in the city, and other independents have developed their own methods of coping. Frank Lee, who owns and operates the 4 Star in the Richmond, programs the kinds of films that draw in neighborhood patrons as well as loyal Asian-film fans, unique first runs alongside second-run mainstream and art-house features. The Castro Theatre, whose owners, the Nassers, resumed managing the building in August, is staying its course – revivals, international first runs, specialized festival screenings – while enjoying some capital improvements. Unlike the Roxie, the Castro maintains a calendar, which programmer Monga calls "sacrosanct," and doesn't hold over films. The Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley will be closing at the end of June but plans on reemerging in a newly developed Fine Arts Building with two sibling organizations, the Newsreel Café and the Cinema Preservation Society.

Worker-owned collective the Red Vic, in the Haight, occasionally opens a new feature from an independent distributor and mostly plays a mix of repertory programming and second-run films to draw in its neighbors. It survived its own disaster when, after losing its lease in 1990, it found a new space and resumed operation. "The real hitch of our story," collective member Dennis Conroy says, "is that we have a very forgiving landlord who used to be a member of the collective when it first began."

One thing all these theaters complain about is press coverage. "I tell indie filmmakers that we're the worst place for them because we have no money [to advertise] and neither do they," Conroy says. "You'd think indie film houses and indie filmmakers go together, but I don't think that's financially feasible. If they're not getting reviewed – unless you really follow calendars and are a film buff – a week will go by and you'll say, 'What's at the Roxie?' "

It's gotten to the point where the Roxie's Lavine says that if he were a distributor or an independent filmmaker, he wouldn't want to open a small film in San Francisco. But Monga thinks the city still has the best audience for small, foreign, and classic film revivals, "the best in the country – a diverse, engaged, intelligent, sophisticated audience," even though, she says, if you look in the mainstream newspapers, "it would be hard to tell the difference between Peoria and San Francisco."

Profits being what they are, the Roxie could just go out of business. But the staff is busy coming up with alternatives to the unthinkable – even considering going nonprofit, becoming something akin to the Film Forum in New York, Banning says. "It's a concept we're examining in order to provide individual corporations a way to make tax-deductible contributions, allow us to apply for grants, and give us a status that would allow us to show films which are prohibited from exhibiting commercially because of rights."

What Landmark, the Roxie, the Balboa, the 4 Star, the Red Vic, the Castro, the Fine Arts, and perhaps even not-for-profit venues like the Pacific Film Archive, Rafael Film Center, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts all have to live with are the realities of the film industry at the moment. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, from 1995 to the present the number of screens in the United States has risen by 9,000, while the number of theaters has been reduced by 500. In 1987, when places like the Roxie weren't quite so mired in red, the number of indoor screens in the United States was 20,000, almost half what it is today. Says Meyer, who watches the industry closely, "The general feeling is that one-third of these screens have to close to stabilize the business. In the past year almost every one of the big theater circuits has gone bankrupt or been bought."

Projections

Bill Banning stands in the dusty, just-assembled space that, if things go as previously planned, will be the 50-seat second screen that will secure Roxie's future, and the future of neighborhood movies in the Mission. The walls are exposed beams. There's a stairway up to the projectionist booth. There's hope. "It's the whole idea of why America was multiplexed," Banning says. "Our income will increase by 50 percent, and our overhead will increase by 5 percent. We still have to seal up and soundproof the walls. But most of the work has been done. It could open in six weeks."

The space used to be a Holy Roller church. "We used to ask them not to bang the drum too loudly," he says. When the church moved out eight years ago, the Roxie decided it should be a theater. Money was available – the Mayor's Office of Community Development was distributing grants from the Mission Armory Foundation, funds that were going to build a movie studio in the old Mission Armory at Mission and 14th Streets until the cost of retrofitting proved too huge. He prepared a plan requesting $113,700 and received the money in June 1997. He hoped the city's money would cover construction, the projection booth, and an electrical upgrade. He already had the seats – regular and love seats, plush, high backs, every one with its own armrests, $250 a piece – down in the basement, a $12,500 contribution on the part of the Roxie. They did a lot of the hard labor themselves. But as it turned out, Banning says, "by the time construction began last August, [the grant] didn't get us nearly that much. One of the things it didn't get us was the electrical upgrade."

Eighteen thousand dollars worth of it. It's a capital improvement, but landlord Abecassis – already owed $35,550 in rent – may not be too kindly disposed toward covering what, to him, is an unexpected cost. (He did not return our calls by press time.) A little foresight would have helped. "There's no excuse for not knowing the electrical work would have to be paid," Banning says.

The Roxie's credit history doesn't put it in a position to get a bank loan at this point, but it may not have exhausted its avenues with the city. Possibilities for help from the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Mission Economic Development Association exist, in theory at least. Hey, even Gavin Newsom has even taken an interest in the fate of single-screen theaters; he conducted hearings on the topic just last year.

As Meyer sees it, the Mission is a potential opportunity. "I think that the Mission District is the sleeping giant. If I was a commercial theater operator, I would go looking for a location to put a theater in the Mission."

Is there any way to just save the one we currently have?

Even those who've registered complaints against the theater – filmmakers who've had to wait a little too long for payment, personalities who've held grudges, distributors who've decided, for one reason or another, to pull their festivals or films out of the Roxie – are seemingly united. At least, none would go on the record. Says Gail Silva, executive director of the Film Arts Foundation, which decided, after 16 years at the Roxie, to change its image and bring its festival to new venues last year, "We care about that movie theater surviving."

Losing the Roxie isn't just losing a business. It isn't even just losing the last remaining movie theater in the Mission, the only theater servicing the southern part of the city. It's cutting out yet another piece of San Francisco's heart and stomping on it. With apologies to James Cameron and any of the original survivors, this is a crisis of Titanic proportions.

The Roxie Rent Party goes down Sun/7. The Last Picture Show screening 2 p.m. ($7); gala benefit party, featuring the Brass Monkey Brass Band, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Kaufman, and Killing My Lobster, party 7 p.m. (doors 6 p.m.), second screening of The Last Picture Show no later than 9 p.m., 3117 16th St., S.F. $20 and up. (415) 431-3611.

Reporting by Cheryl Eddy, Cassi Feldman, Johnny Ray Huston, China Martens, Annalee Newitz.