Closing credits
Supervisors strive to save small movie theaters but say Prop. L isn't the way to do it

By Laura M. Allen

San Francisco is losing its single-screen movie theaters, sparking myriad legislative efforts to save these economic and cultural anchors. But critics say the most high-profile solution – Proposition L, which would divert city hotel taxes to save the theaters – is little more than a secretive scam that plays off the public's love for the small-scale cinematic experience.

The number of neighborhood theaters in San Francisco has dropped from 35 to just 12 over the past 25 years, and it could soon drop by one more if the Four Star Theatre in the Richmond District closes as planned. Owner Frank Lee, who bought the quaint space in 1992, had hoped to buy the building before his lease expires next May, but Lee was outbid by the Canaan Lutheran Church, which paid $1.2 million and plans to convert the property into a church.

Nearby businesses decry the potential loss of the Four Star, which, like many such theaters, draws customers who shop and eat at nearby establishments. Even more disappointed are the film buffs who appreciate the theater's unique offerings, such as the annual Four Star Asian Film Festival. Park Merced resident Mike Dinailig, 31, who recently visited the Four Star to see the Japanese film The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, said the theater is irreplaceable.

"I came specifically to see this movie, and this was the only theater playing it," he told the Bay Guardian. "If it wasn't here, then I couldn't see the movie, and that would suck."

Sup. Jake McGoldrick has developed legislation to save the Four Star and theaters like it. It imposes a 45-day moratorium on the closure of single-screen theaters, which the Board of Supervisors can vote to extend for up to 22 months. The measure cleared the Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee on Sept. 27 and will come before the full board for approval Oct. 5.

"These theaters are magnets to neighborhood businesses, and I think it's important to keep them," McGoldrick's legislative aide Jerry Threet told us.

Also offering legislation intended to slow the loss of small theaters is Sup. Aaron Peskin, who's in the process of drafting legislation that would require projects converting small theaters for other uses to go through the conditional-use permit process, which would trigger full public hearings and review.

"This would allow for the maximum public input from the community before the use can be changed," Peskin's aide David Owen told us.

"If Aaron Peskin's legislation passes, we have a good chance of staying. If it passes, it's not only good for us but the whole city," said Lee, who has gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to save his theater. "If other indie theaters face eviction, not just us, then this legislation might save them."

Like just about everyone in the city political establishment, as well as arts-related community groups such as the San Francisco Film Society, Owen strongly opposes Prop. L – which would divert about $10 million a year in city hotel-tax revenue to a nonprofit group called Save Our Theaters, which says it will save the theaters and invest in filmmakers.

But according to Hilary Hart, press contact for the San Francisco Film Society, Save Our Theaters is "not a group, it's a person, with no staff or record of running theaters."

Save Our Theaters was created by aspiring filmmaker Greg Stephens, who told us Prop. L will be a way for the people – through his nonprofit – to take control of theaters that would otherwise close and to fund artists like himself. "This is truly about creating something for the people. It's not for the politicians; it's for the people."

Yet Stephens's critics worry about giving his group such a huge amount of public funds at a time when the city is laying off workers and cutting services. To help with his project, Stephens brought in Jeffrey Hardy, who consults on film-distribution deals and has recently given expert court testimony on behalf of 20th Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company.

Hardy insists fiscal safeguards are built into the company. He told us, "This is a lot of money, and it needs to have true fiduciary responsibility, because if it doesn't, it would be a disaster."