End of line for SF’s repertory cinemas?

By Patrick von Sychowski | February 12, 2008 4:40 am PST

The age of Netflix:ed DVDs and Tivo:ed TMC repeats of film classics has not been kind to repertory cinemas. The SF Chronicle chronics the declining audience numbers for the city’s most venerable rep houses:

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.

“Last year everything changed,” Huestis said. “There was a drop everywhere, whether due to the economy or just the culmination of the new technology that exists right now. The old models are losing audiences. It’s really scary.”

Just look around. The Roxie Cinema, which in the 1990s had the best retrospectives of any commercial theater in the entire country, has all but given up repertory programming. The Castro Theatre’s calendar was once wall-to-wall classics and foreign masterpieces, during the reign of its nationally respected programmer, Anita Monga. Then Monga was let go in 2004, and today the theater relies mostly on its outside festivals and nonfilm events to maintain its profit margin.

Even the gorgeously restored Balboa Theatre is on the ropes as it fails to pull in the crowds like it used to. “DVD was the nail in the coffin,” and “DVDs have killed the rep business,” are the echoing sentiments of Roxie’s Elliot Lavine and Castro’s Bill Longen. But their colleagues in New York disagree:

Under Bruce Goldstein’s brilliant programming, Film Forum’s repertory is doing better than ever. “DVD hasn’t hurt at all – DVD may have helped us,” he said. “It has certainly jump-started studio restorations – there are great prints of just about everything now. And it’s created a whole new generation of movie buffs.”

As in so many other situations, digital is held out as the universal cure-all:

With digital,” Lavine said, “the studio could send you a transmission – or a DVD for 41 cents shipping instead of $150. You want a business model? Throw out your projectors and invest in the best video projection you can get. You could even play store-bought DVDs, if you contact the right holder. You could charge five or six dollars admission instead of 10. And you might be able, if you’re personable enough, to play this stuff at a very reduced rate. Run the Universal logo on-screen as people come in. Sell DVDs in the lobby. There are creative ways. Exhibitors can either go to bed angry or wake up and change, because this is what it is.”

But the truth is that even more innovation and ingenuity s required from programmers and exhibitors that already out do the average multiplex by a mile in terms of original way of finding, nurturing and responding to local audiences. Balboa, for example, is telecasting the Oscars and giving out awards for the best costumes and guessing the winner of the Awards. Just one of many events the cinemas in organizing.

Patrick von Sychowski
Follow me