Taking it to the Bridge: Can local movie theaters survive?

Film 2010: Think Globally, View Locally

Adam Hartzell December 20, 2010

“I think you go out of guilt," my friend commented as I was settling into my seat for my second viewing of Aasif Mandvi's Today's Special. I could understand why he was suspicious of my motives: I had already seen the film at a press screening, and I had explained to him that I was watching the movie again not so much because I needed to see this particular film for a second time, but because the Bridge Theatre creates an anchor for my entire neighborhood. I told him I was at this film because I had committed myself to supporting the movie theater it was playing in.

My friend was born in the ’80s, which means he is perfectly in sync with watching films not just on DVD or via TV, but even more accessibly, on his computer. I, on the other hand, have yet to download a film.

The previous weekend, my wife and I entered the lobby about five minutes before the final Saturday screening of Ondi Timoner's global-warming documentary Cool It to find no guests, only two staff members, one literally slumped on the snack stand counter appearing to bear an existential weight. This particular screening was a sad one. Though the Bridge often provides personal introductions to its films, on this night, they may have been excused for opting out of this tradition for the audience of two assembled. Distracted during previews and pre-film advertisements, I noted roughly five more people had straggled in. But in all, it was a chilly reception for a Saturday night screening of a talked-about filmmaker's new feature doc.

I had taken the dead-air moment in the lobby to state my loyalty to the Bridge publicly, telling the staff my wife and I would continue to see whatever films they present. Not only that, but we would arrive peckish and purchase popcorn, or parched and purchase a beverage, since I'm well aware that's where most of a theater's margin is made. When I told this story to my friend as a means of explaining my new mission, he was simply puzzled.

R.A. McBride's photo of the Clay's interior is featured in 2010's 'Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres' by McBride and Julie Lindow.

From 'Heathers' to here

And yet, in terms of trends in film viewing, I imagine my skeptical friend is, like me, behind the curve. If you were born in the ’90s or ’00s your first thoughts on the concept of "catching a flick" might turn to your computer rather than an actual theater.

Just a guess, but it's a guess supported by the conversation I had with a pleasant teenager while I waited for the 38 Geary Muni bus to take me toward the Balboa the following weekend. My wife and I were heading to watch the documentary The Kings of Pastry, a trip inspired by both the topic of the film and by an essay for the wonderful book published this year, Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres. The essay was written by film scholar Laura Horak and Balboa Theatre operator (and Telluride Film Festival co-director) Gary Meyer. Meyer shared his efforts to keep the Balboa viable while also providing a venue where one can experience more from than the cattle-call arrangement of the modern multiplex. As Meyer and Horak wrote, choosing the right films for a theater is a lottery. With special events, such as bringing someone from Pixar to talk before Wall-E, or the annual Balboa Birthday Bash, where they screen a film from 1926, the staff of the Balboa is trying to come up with an against-all-odds winning formula for solvency while providing a space for films that might not have the widest niche.

The friendly teenager we met waiting for the 38 lives two blocks from the Balboa. Chatting it up as we walked, he told us his family has lived in the same house in the Outer Richmond for three generations but has never set foot in the Balboa.

Yet, I'm reluctant to complain about this generation and its viewing habits. I myself didn’t stumble upon art house cinemas until the spring of my senior year in high school, when I corralled my friends to take a trip across the Cleveland class divide to the wealthier suburbs of the East side and the Cedar Lee Theatre to watch Heathers. I didn’t go out of any more admirable an aesthetic than the fact that I thought Winona Ryder was hot. But that trip changed me. It seems so obvious now, but Heathers taught me film could be so much more than just special effects and fight/chase scenes. And as much as a transfixing Ryder was lovely eye candy for my hormone-fueled teen self, it’s not visions of Ryder that remain with me after all these years, but the witty dialogue, the simple (and now I realize not so subtle) use of color to underscore the psychological profile of characters, and the fact that it purported to take place in my very own state of Ohio.

This independent theater offered a richer, more fulfilling experience than the multiplexes I was used to. It’s the same sort of difference I would later notice when comparing Clement Street retail with, say, what's in the Westfield San Francisco Centre downtown; the same leap from Farley’s on 18th Street in Potrero Hill to a Starbucks anywhere. The Cedar Lee set me on a search not just for indie/art cinema but also the independent retail, restaurant and coffehouse cultures that grow symbiotically alongside it .

The walk to and from the local theater offers extra dimensions to film-watching no remote control, computer mouse click or 3–D technology can hope to compete with. Walking a neighborhood post-film is a process of mental geo-caching, solidifying memories via street visuals and actual conversation. My wife tells me on the walk down Geary that she knows men like those in Tiny Furniture. Emerging from the Balboa after the Italian series Best of Youth, the fog feels more refreshing on my face. Laughing with friends about the chaos of a Hong Kong comedy while exiting the 4 Star, we don’t even bother to head over to California to grab the bus—we just let our conversation carry us through the line of restaurants and stores all the way home.


Rebecca Solnit's 'Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas' (UC Press) maps a movie-rich San Francisco.

Infinite City, singular locations

Connection with place was a prominent topic in two prominent San Francisco cinema-related books this year, the aforementioned Left in the Dark, by Julie Lindow and R.A. McBride, and Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Solnit's fascinating Infinite City is a treasure of intricate, intimate maps. It includes one map of cinemas extant during the release of Hitchcock’s Vertigo cross-referenced with markings of where scenes were filmed and where significant San Francisco moments happened in the life of the man who made cinema possible through his success capturing photographs of high-speed motion, Eadweard Muybridge. (Solnit’s written a whole book about Muybridge too. This was a Solnit year for me, having read six books of which she was a part. So you can say this was a year not just devoted to local theaters, but local writers, and the bookstores that love them, too.)

Maps within both books lay out a time lost, when cinemas were more plentiful in San Francisco. I long for a return to what Eddie Muller describes in his Left in the Dark essay “The Great White Way of Noir City," where cinemas lined up Market Street with a splendor unmatched by the current Gap, Anthroplogie and Old Navy triumverate. A cinema one can walk to is such a rare thing, (though San Francisco still seems to have more than anywhere else), I want to do what I can to keep them around rather than let inertia fix me upon the tunnel-vision micro-cinema of my isolating computer screen.

Maps like those in Infinite City are made by walking, and the mental map from walking to the Bridge is a different walk than one taken to, say, the Clay or the Lumiere or the Roxie. The hustle and bustle of Clement Street in the Inner Richmond doesn’t seep around the corner to the long stretch of Geary between Arguello and Masonic. The corner of Arguello and Geary is a reminder of what once was, as the elder care facility taking over the space from the old Coronet movie theater is close to completion. No longer do we hover over the destruction of the Coronet‘s core immortalized by R.A. McBride‘s photos in Left in the Dark. But even with its former grandeur replaced, memories of watching The Lord of The Rings trilogy with a packed house still resonate, like ghosts of cinema’s past, as my wife and I take to the Bridge.

Sometimes it’s a fairly lonely walk to the Bridge since the business establishments are more spread out. We will await a matinee screening at one of the coffeehouses closest to the theater—Nani’s, a Royal Ground Coffee franchise, or the Brazilian Sunstream Coffee. But those all close down too early to stop in before an early or late evening showing. So if we are early to a late screening, my wife and I might step into Internos for a glass of wine. Or if we are meeting up with friends and have decided on dinner before, it’s a great excuse to go to the Korean fried chicken place, Red Wings, across from the Bridge that earlier this year replaced the Indonesian restaurant that used to fill that space. We often mention to these establishments that we are on our way to a film, hoping to encourage the symbiotic relationship between businesses around the theater as well as participate in our own guerilla marketing for the Bridge to the other possibly eavesdropping patrons.

As it turns out, my wife and I have become regular patrons of Red Wings, huge fans of their kimchi bokum (spicy sautéed pork, kimchi and tofu). We’ve been making fans of the place amongst our friends as well. One evening, we had just a dinner, no movie, at Red Wings with my wife‘s best friend and her husband. As the 4:35 p.m. screening let out its patrons around 6:30 p.m., I took my attention away from our dinner guests and looked over Geary Street to the Bridge hoping to see a car-clownesque excavation of patron after patron. As couples, groups, and single patrons slowly left the theater, I started to count them, letting myself stop counting once I saw at least 20 people exiting beneath the bright white lights underneath the theatre marquee. It wasn’t a packed house, but a smile gradually filled my face as I saw a sustained slow departure of patrons unfurl onto to the sidewalk, evidence of White Material securing a much hotter night than the frigid reception to Cool It.

It’s not guilt that motivates my commitment to my local theater, I realized: It’s hope. And, of course, that yummy kimchi bokum.

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