Hard times for many repertory cinemas

posted by CSWalczak on February 13, 2008 at 8:55 am

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — According to this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, repertory cinemas – those that program for lovers of classic, revival, and non-mainstream fare – are finding it harder and harder to do so and remain even modestly profitable due to DVDs and other downloadable and rentable media:

For more than two decades, ever since the arrival of VHS tape, San Francisco exhibitors have been scrambling to find a business model that supports classic repertory programming. Exhibitors have devised and revised workable survival strategies, but time after time, those strategies have been undercut by new threats – such as the advent of DVD, Netflix and now downloadable movies. They’ve tried longer runs, shorter runs, themed festivals, celebrity guests, relatives of deceased celebrities, autograph signing parties and live entertainment, all to less and less effect. Some look ahead to digital projection as a possible panacea, but that’s a few years away.

All exhibitors concur that the prospects for repertory in San Francisco have become downright bleak, and that just within the past year business has gotten even worse. In movie-loving, cineast San Francisco, the repertory audience seems to be drying up.

Comments (7)

schmadrian on February 13, 2008 at 9:41 am

“DVDs have killed the rep business.”

“DVD hasn’t hurt at all – DVD may have helped us.”

Fascinating contrast, fascinating article.

I’m reminded of a saying, and of a song: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,’ and ‘I can’t make you love me…’

RobinW on February 13, 2008 at 10:17 am

This would be bad for me. I may be deaf, but I like going to the movies too. Foreign and silent films are the only ones that I can see in theatres. But on the other hand, the Music Box and the Century in Chicago appear to be doing well.

DonSolosan on February 13, 2008 at 11:10 am

American Cinematheque in L.A. (both locations) also appear to be doing well.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on February 13, 2008 at 11:32 am

Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA survives, but had to become a non-profit and raise money from the public through donations.

scottfavareille on February 13, 2008 at 12:49 pm

I read the SF Chronicle article—It was quite well written. My two cents as to why the revival house business has dried up in the San Francisco Bay Area:

DVDs &/or showings of films on TCM do have a lot to do with it. Why pay $8.50 (what the revival house charges) per person when you can see it for less? The showings that have done well (from my observation) are of the films that are not on video or DVD. Gary Meyer’s Paramount Pre-Code series did quite well as many of those films have not been released on video nor do they air on TCM. (I have traveled from the suburbs to see many of these films.)

One solution mentioned in the article is to use “digital projection” of movies (DVD??) & to maybe sell videos in the lobby. Quite frankly, I think that would kill whatever little life there is left. This is what the “porn houses” did in the early-mid 1980s and it signaled the end of the theatrical sex film business. As it has been argued many times before, showmanship is what makes the difference. The Castro has done this with various programs. I have been to various “cult film nights” at theaters like the Parkway in Oakland & the Cerrito Theater (El Cerrito), where they present a film along with some entertainment (usually a musical act) plus some “prize giveaways”. Some of their shows sell out.

Of course, there is always the PFA (Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley), which has some adventurous film programming (much of it is not on video).

Maybe it takes some “creative programming”, & perhaps “showmanship”.

Jim Vecchio
Jim Vecchio on February 14, 2008 at 6:01 am

I went to college in New Haven in the 70’s and it was a real “college town” then. The York Square Cinemas (at times) at the LINCOLN, always, played revivals and many of them to packed houses. I still recall a Bogie Festival at York Square when every possible seat was taken, and all the way up the aisle people were standing or sitting as best they could. I have seen those same Bogie movies many, many times on TCM, video, and DVD, but the experience is just not the same. I am tired of the junk thrown at us in the cinema nowadays. York Square and Lincoln are long gone. Just before York Square closed for good, it held a mini-Bogie festival. My wife, daughter and I practically filled up the auditorium. Times sure do change!

CSWalczak on February 14, 2008 at 8:19 am

I still find it hard to understand why a city like San Francisco can’t keep one or two good repertory theaters going, especially a theater like the venerable Castro, especially given its location. After all, while SF may not, in and of itself, be have a “massive population,” it’s still a part of the Bay Area, home to millions of arts-loving, well-educated people, and while public transportation may not be comparable to that in NY, one can get there relatively easily by BART and MUNI. If repertory still works in LA where one has to drive in order to get just about anywhere, it ought to viable in The City.

But there’s no doubt that the audience has diminished. I remember that well into the 90’s,one only had to turn to the Sunday edition of the SF Chronicle to see a wide array of repertory, alternative, and classic films at a number of venues around the Bay. Some of these still go on like The Red Vic and the Pacific Film Archive , but are obviously not traditional for-profit operations. The U.C. was probably the main rival to the Castro in terms of its programming; that closed some years ago now. The Avenue Theater out on San Bruno used to show silent and occasionally classic 3-D films; the Red Vic folks for awhile re-opened the a theater out by SF General and ran an eclectic program of films. In the summer, the Paramount in Oakland used to run some classic films too as did the Grand Lake on occasion. There was also revival programming at the Strand and Embassy (though things got rather seedy at those two now-gone theaters toward the end). If memory serves, the Parkside, before it was demolished, gave repertory a whirl for a time as well as did the Pagoda Palace up in North Beach.

A worrisome aspect of the Castro having difficulty maintaining an audience under its traditional business model is that its owners may reconsider twinning or triplexing this classic house; this unfortunate prospect has been raised before.

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