For Indie Movie Theaters in the Bay Area, an Uphill Climb to Reopening

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The Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission District is one of the Bay Area's many smaller, independently run movie theaters.
The Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission District is one of the Bay Area's many smaller, independently run movie theaters.  (Courtesy Roxie Theater)

On March 13 of last year, Lex Sloan had been planning for a sold-out weekend of movies at the Roxie when she decided to shut down. “Health and public safety encouraged us to close our doors early and to remain closed,” explains Sloan, the executive director of the historic indie movie theater in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Now, over a year later, large theater chains in the Bay Area like AMC and Regency have reopened their multiplexes while most indie theaters remain closed, a result of reduced resources combined with social-distancing protocols. Smaller cinemas have been forced to innovate to stay afloat, leaning on crowdfunding campaigns and private theater rentals. As for their reopening, Sloan has a simple prescription.

“San Franciscans and Bay Areans getting vaccinated,” she says. “That’s really the key.”

Indie Theaters Hit Harder

Until the pandemic fully recedes, indie theaters abide by the state’s CinemaSafe regulations, which mandate reduced capacity and social distancing in movie theaters. These rules make the indoor moviegoing experience safer—and, for many independent exhibitors, less profitable. Smaller venues with less seats, Zastrow explains, will have trouble reaching even 50% capacity while also maintaining six feet of distance between customers.

J Moses Caesar, general manager of the New Parkway in Oakland, concurs. “We had the opportunity to reopen in the fall,” Caesar says. “The numbers just did not pencil out for us, certainly at 25% [capacity] and probably not even at 50%.” Caesar admits the decision to reopen the New Parkway in September is partially based on the hope that, by then, it will be allowed to operate as a “non-socially distanced theater.”

The New Parkway auditorium, with couches and seats
The New Parkway in Oakland, with couches and household furniture as seating, may wait until social-distancing requirements are scaled back before reopening to the public. (Flickr/mliu92)

Sloan estimates that the Roxie will also probably lose money when it reopens. “With limited concessions at reduced capacity,” she says, “it's very unlikely we will be able to break even for the first couple of months that we’re open.”


But continued sales of virtual cinema tickets and memberships have given Sloan reason for optimism. This community support, she says, will make the financial losses workable.

Innovations—and Obstacles

Streaming cinema is one of many interim measures that smaller theaters have implemented—in addition to crowdfunding campaigns and private theater rentals—that may remain a fixture of post-pandemic moviegoing. As the specter of the virus looms over public gatherings, at-home digital cinema provides viewers who would rather watch from home with a steady supply of curated programming from their local indie theater. The Roxie Theater, Balboa Theater and the Smith Rafael Film Center have all incorporated a digital cinema arm since initially closing their physical doors.

Dan Zastrow, general manager and programmer at the Smith Rafael Film Center, has seen continued engagement with both in-person and virtual offerings since the theater reopened on March 5. “It’s kind of 50/50 in terms of attendance,” Zastrow says. “So, if these kinds of numbers keep holding true, it makes total sense to keep the streaming site going.”

Another pandemic-era feature that could possibly stay put is the parklet that owner and operator Adam Bergeron installed in front of the Balboa Theater. The parklet, which features an 80-inch screen and allows for concession sales, has enabled Bergeron to stay in contact with audiences in the absence of indoor screenings.

“The neighborhood has really responded to it,” says Bergeron. “I really hope that is something we keep up for as long as we can.”

The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
The Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. (George Lazarus/Courtesy Smith Rafael Film Center)

A more unwelcome innovation? Major film studios’ aggressive shifts in release strategy as a response to COVID-19. Warner Bros., for example, is releasing its 2021 slate of films simultaneously in cinemas and on HBOMax. In 2022, Warner will return to theatrical releases, but with a much shorter window of exclusivity—only 45 days, as opposed to the pre-pandemic 90—that is quickly coalescing as the new industry standard.

“The theatrical window has irrevocably changed,” admits Ky J. Boyd, director of the Rialto Cinemas theaters in Sebastopol, Berkeley and El Cerrito. Titles like Disney’s Luca bypassing theaters for streamers, he says, is a “concerning factor” for him and other exhibitors.

'We Know Our Customers' Names'

But many indie theaters see themselves as adaptable to these changes, in a way that the larger theater chains—who depend almost exclusively on studio blockbusters for traffic—aren’t. “We’ve never relied on the Disney hits to keep our theater going,” says Sloan. “At the megaplexes, you’ll see Godzilla vs. Whoever on their screens, like, all week long. At the Roxie, we usually do 14 different titles a week.”

Upcoming programming across Bay Area arthouses follows this niche model, guided by local tastes and suggestions. The Balboa is reopening May 14 with a festival of 10 classic Godzilla flicks; the New Parkway is planning a series of theme weeks; and the Rafael is currently showing quirky documentaries and Academy Award-nominated films on 35mm.

It’s this kind of community-driven, creative ethos that theater owners confidently predict will help them maneuver around national chains and reignite their neighborhoods’ desire to come back to the movies. “We know our customers’ names, and they know our names,” says Bergeron. Zastrow echoes: “We are an integral part of the community.”

And after a year of darkened auditoriums, reconnecting with their local communities is a buoying prospect for these Bay Area institutions.

“I do think that theaters are going to continue to be a place where audiences discover film, whether it’s indie film or mid-size releases,” says Boyd, voicing a shared sense of optimism among indie cinemas. “Because there’s only so much that the streaming services have.”