The main auditorium of the newly refurbished New Mission theater, opening Dec. 17. (Courtesy: Mike Keegan)
UPDATE: (Dec. 11, 4pm)
Though the official opening date is Thursday, Dec. 17, the Alamo Drafthouse will have a "soft opening" for the New Mission Theater this Saturday, Dec. 12. For movie listings, visit the theater's website.
Alamo Drafthouse, along with production company Annapurna Pictures, have also made a deal with the former San Francisco video store Le Video to help preserve their famous collection of over 90,000 titles. Read more about the deal on KQED News.
By my reckoning, the Metreon multiplex was the last new movie theater to open in San Francisco, in 1999. A few exhibitors have since popped for pricey reconfigurations and renovations (Sundance Kabuki, Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema), but nobody has had the ambition and confidence to either build from scratch or reclaim and restore a shuttered cinema in the 21st century -- until now.
On Dec. 17, the New Mission Theater reopens under the auspices of Alamo Drafthouse, the quirky and influential Austin-based chain founded by Berkeley native Tim League and his wife, Karrie.
The centerpiece of the massively refurbished New Mission, on Mission St between 21st and 22nd Streets, is a 320-seat house augmented by four theaters scaling from 90 down to 34 seats. Although it’s a neighborhood theater, like the vast majority of S.F. cinemas, it will attract moviegoers from all over the city for at least the first several months. (New movie theaters, like new ballparks, have a galvanizing effect on the public. Call it the “new seat effect.”)
As long as we’re talking about the (infra)structure, the New Mission features a significant bar/lounge space that League envisions as a destination even if customers aren’t up for a movie. This writer, however, imagines Bear Vs Bull, as it’s called, jammed with people jabbering about the film they just saw.
“What I like to do,” League agrees, “and why we have a bar at all our theaters, after I watch an incredible movie the first thing I want to do is sit down over a beer or a cocktail and talk about it.” Whoever’s downing ‘em, the libations and comestibles comprise an important revenue stream to recoup Drafthouse’s reported $10 million investment in the New Mission.
Audiences, admittedly, aren’t much interested in whether the profit margin is greater for a pint and a portobello sandwich than basic popcorn and soda. And after the novelty of the new theater wears off, regular moviegoers will be less concerned with the configuration of the screening rooms and the comfort of the seats than with what’s on the screen. So the most compelling question is, what will the New Mission be showing?
The very first booking, a low-budget, under-the-radar sequel entitled Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens, feels more like an acknowledgement of financial realities than the first step in instilling the New Mission’s identity. My conversations with League and creative manager Mike Keegan, a familiar face from his years at the Roxie, indicates that they are ecumenical and egalitarian movie lovers whose tastes encompass high and low, quality and exploitation, Bergman-esque philosophy and Pavlovian action, without fear or favor. So booking a blockbuster shouldn’t be viewed as either shamelessly selling out or violating monastic precepts but an embrace of all kinds of movies -- in this case, popular mainstream fare.
Of course, a steady diet of that stuff -- as well as popcorn and cola -- makes you flabby, soft and stupid. In any event, the New Mission will do consistently terrific business on the weekends, regardless of whether its offerings are comic-book movies or character-based dramas (aka arthouse fare), because that’s when people go to the movies. The overriding challenge the New Mission faces is filling the place on weeknights. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Keegan, who holds the keys to the programming kingdom, is merging Alamo Drafthouse’s experience in Texas and other markets with his own experiments. His first job in the film biz a little over a decade ago was as a parking lot attendant at the Spectrum in Albany, New York; he wound up managing the place and booking midnight movies. He joined the Roxie’s merry programmers in 2008, shortly after he moved to San Francisco.
At the New Mission, Keegan declares, “We’re here to build film lovers. And a time-honored way to build film lovers is through genre film.”
Over the years, League, his wife and various associates compiled a library of some 5,000 35mm prints from which the Alamo Drafthouse theaters curate weeknight series. Keegan practically rubs his hands together in glee and cackles over the imminent prospect of transporting those popular Drafthouse theme nights to San Francisco. "Terror Tuesday" will feature a steady stream of horror movies of every conceivable stripe, while "Weird Wednesday" encompasses exploitation movies, bizarre rarities, cult oddities and one-offs.
"Music Mondays" kicks off the week, and while music documentaries are certainly a subgenre, they don’t draw the same loyal following week in and week out. A given film will attract fans of the artist or of that branch of music, but not “music fans,” per se.
Keegan envisions dedicating Thursday nights to community screenings, with a rotation comprised of the multitude of local film festivals and ancillary organizations. A certain amount of trial and error can be expected in the first few months, which is fine with him. After all, if you aspire to inspire people who aren’t in the habit to become regular moviegoers, you’re going to have some misses. Keegan, like most programmers, loves hearing feedback.
“I view it as a conversation,” he explains, “and the initial calendars are conversation starters.”
Yes, the New Mission will print and distribute somewhere between 10 and 30,000 calendars every month -- the number will shake out over time, another product of trial and error -- to laundromats, cafes and record stores. Or, as Keegan puts it, “Wherever people read a free piece of paper.”
Of course, the backdrop to the opening of a new movie house at the present moment is the ubiquity of streaming, and the instant availability of moving-image entertainment. Going to theaters for entertainment is a relic of the past, many people think, especially when there are so many compelling television series to watch. League disagrees, as you’d expect from someone who has sunk a large chunk of change into a five-screen movie house.
“I’ve always thought of ourselves as having a different set of competition,” he says. “No matter how good your home entertainment center is, or long-form TV, you want to get out of the house. We compete against the bars, shows, comedy. We want to make sure our experience is compelling enough to compete against the other outside-the-house entertainment options.”
League is right about the bars (d)evolving into the default social activity for San Franciscans of a certain age. As a devotee of movies and theaters -- which I assume you are as well, if you’ve stuck with the story this far -- you’re rooting for League and Keegan to establish the New Mission as not just an alluring entertainment option, or a successful business, but as an institution that nourishes and advances film culture.
Is that asking too much of a multiplex that raises its curtain with the unholy offspring of George Lucas and J.J. Abrams? Let’s discuss it over a pint in six months.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.