Monday, February 11, 2008
On Thursday, when an estimated thousand people pack the Castro Theatre to see a 40-year-old movie - Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo & Juliet" - it will seem like classic repertory programming is alive and well in San Francisco. Olivia Hussey, the film's star, will be interviewed on stage. There will be photos snapped and autographs signed, and in all likelihood, one of those only-in-San-Francisco feelings will pervade the air.
But when it's all over, producer Marc Huestis - after three months of work leading up to the big night - will net only a modest profit. And that's if he's lucky.
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.
"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.
Perhaps the most telling example is the most recent. Gary Meyer, a co-founder of Landmark Theatres and one of the savviest and most energetic exhibitors in the area, did his best to make a go of repertory at his Balboa Theater. He gave the Balboa a gorgeous renovation and programmed it with adventurous retrospectives, such as a Paramount pre-Code series in 2005 and a Boris Karloff tribute in 2006. The theater had everything going for it but audiences, and Meyer had to abandon repertory programming by the second half of 2006.
"To have Boris Karloff's daughter there, at the biggest Karloff retrospective in history, with an audience of just 50 people," Meyer said, "that's pretty disconcerting."
Fifteen years ago, that Karloff tribute might have been a success, and 30 years ago, there would have been lines around the block. And that has been the story everywhere. For every "Sing-Along Sound of Music," there are a dozen disaster stories, sometimes involving formulas that were once surefire. For example, in 1993, director James Toback came to the Roxie Cinema and talked to a sold-out crowd following a screening of his 1978 classic, "Fingers." The energy was electric and continued out onto the sidewalk. But in 2006, when Toback came to the Roxie for an ambitious retrospective of his films, the spectacle was downright embarrassing. He stood in front of the house talking to no more than 20 to 25 people.
"In the mid- to late '70s," said Bill Longen, events producer at the Castro, "you could run a Bette Davis double feature and pack the theater - and they didn't even have to be good Bette Davis pictures."
In those pre-VHS days, the business was pretty straightforward. Repertory theaters would show a different double feature every day. Movie lovers kept track by pasting programming schedules of the various theaters on their walls, and these schedules were consulted often: Aside from the Late Show, rep houses were the only means by which people got to see old movies.
This golden era wasn't entirely golden. As Bruce Goldstein, who programs repertory for New York's Film Forum, points out, "Repertory then was bad 16 millimeter prints, beaten to death, with scratches and splices. Studios didn't have classics divisions in those days, and so there were no new prints." But there were audiences, then - made up to a large extent of young people, who'd been exposed to cinema societies in college and were reveling in the buried treasure of classic American film.
The rise of VHS tape exerted the first culling effect. Locally, the Richelieu disappeared and the Gateway converted into a first-run art house. But as Bill Banning, owner of the Roxie Cinema, has said, exhibitors could survive if they were willing to innovate. By the time he took over the Roxie in 1984, Banning knew "you couldn't show straight repertory and make it. You had to show top-notch films, and you had to have a strong theme - film noir, pre-Code. That worked into the '90s."
Another innovation of the late '80s and '90s was the "long-run revival," the creation of Bruce Goldstein, head of repertory programming at New York's Film Forum since 1986. "If you change the bill every day," he said, "the studios have no incentive at all to make a print. So what we did is we'd go to them and say, 'If you make a print, we'll give you a run, and we'll publicize it.' That's our standard for a long-run revival - it has to be a brand new print."
Goldstein's standard became the standard nationally, and following Goldstein's lead, it became common in the '80s and '90s for exhibitors, when advertising a "long run" or "premiere" revival, to talk up the newness of the print. The promise of a fresh print inspired audiences to flock to films they'd seen before - even TV staples, such as "Casablanca" or "The Wizard of Oz" - for the chance to see them projected in pristine condition onto the big screen.
The combination of long runs and inventive festivals made the Roxie Cinema a haven for movie lovers in the mid-1990s. Under the programming of Elliot Lavine, the theater had a Norma Shearer tribute, the U.S. premiere of the Hong Kong exploitation film, "Naked Killer," and a retrospective of the films of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney - and that's just a sampling from one program calendar, from the fall of 1994.
"In the 1990s, you could still do things," Lavine said. "We still had an audience composed of people who'd grown up seeing movies in theaters. VHS was always a consideration. If a movie we wanted to show was on video, we'd pair it up with something not available. But the bad quality of video made theaters in contention."
Gradually other factors started taking a bite out of repertory. "At our westerns festival in 1996, we showed John Wayne in 'The Searchers,' and it did nothing, but other westerns not nearly as well-known drew four and five times that business. Then I looked back and saw Turner Classic Movies had shown it three times in the previous two months. So TCM hurt a little. But the biggest demon that would come down the road - DVD - made it almost impossible. DVD was the nail in the coffin."
Longen agrees. "DVDs have killed the rep business."
The arrival of DVD led to Netflix, which began business in 1999. Meanwhile, the technology for showing movies at home has improved exponentially. Video projectors have come into home use, as well as plasma screens. TVs are getting bigger, and the picture clarity keeps improving. High-definition televisions will soon become the norm, and eventually the DVD as we know it will give way completely to high-definition discs. Already we're seeing a battle for the future play out between two high-definition DVD formats, HDTV and Blu Ray. The latter appears to be winning.
With the home viewing experience suddenly reaching new heights of splendor, what conceivably could be the incentive for seeing classic films in a theater? The answer is simple and not what anyone consciously thought of during the repertory heyday: Other people. After all, in all our memories of transcendent theatergoing experiences, those other people - those strangers watching with you - were part of the experience, too. A big part.
"Movies are a group participation art form, to be in a room with 300 people laughing infectiously," Lavine said. "To see a movie at home, even with a group of friends, is like seeing it under a microscope. These were made to be seen by hundreds of people at the same time."
New Yorkers haven't forgotten this. 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."
But just by virtue of being in Manhattan, Film Forum has some advantages that San Francisco theaters don't have - a massive population, cheap and ubiquitous taxi service, a rapid subway system, a tremendous concentration of media, and a tradition for nightlife surpassing that of any other city in the country. If repertory is ever going to be reborn in San Francisco, exhibitors are going to find a formula that can work here.
Longen doesn't see much hope. "I hate to say it, but as the years go on, it's going to die a very slow death, and I love classic films," he said. "I think Gary Meyer proved it (at the Balboa). The audience isn't there."
But Meyer doesn't agree. "It's very difficult at this time," Meyer said. "But I have hope that in a couple of years, when digital becomes more available, we might be able to do it. With film, there are $150 shipping costs, and I have to pay a projectionist $16 an hour to work from noon to 11. Digital would reduce the cost and make it feasible."
"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."
In the meantime, Huestis is preparing for his "Romeo & Juliet" show on Thursday, putting everything he's got into it. "I'm going to hotels, giving postcards to concierges, doing clip reels, arranging ground transportation for the star, answering phones, accumulating the Will Call list, stuffing Will Call envelopes, and making the signage for Will Call and reserve seats," Huestis said. "This one's make or break."
E-mail Mick LaSalle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle