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There’s Only One Castro Theatre. Why Change It Now?

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The interior of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

First things first: Everybody loves the Castro Theatre.

That much should be evident during a town hall this Thursday, Aug. 11, hosted by the theater’s new operators, the live-music promoters Another Planet Entertainment. But love for the Castro Theatre may be where consensus ends on Thursday.

Another Planet Entertainment (APE) is proposing a restoration and renovation of the 100-year-old theater, which includes the ceiling, marquee, proscenium, dressing rooms, bathrooms, ADA compliance and more—upgrades widely welcomed. One part of APE’s proposal, however, has inspired over 5,000 opponents to sign a petition launched by the nonprofit Castro Theatre Conservancy, which names famous film directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola among its supporters.

The controversy comes down to the raked theater floor and the Castro’s traditional orchestra-style theater seating, which APE has proposed replacing with removable seats on multi-level, flat platforms more conducive to standing-room concerts. (The plans submitted to San Francisco’s planning department look similar to the Fox Theater in Oakland, which APE helped restore and now operates.)

Detail of plans for the Castro Theatre submitted to the Planning Department, showing concession/bar areas in the back of the theater and multi-level tiers, which would be equipped for removable seating. The building’s new operators call the plans “very, very preliminary.” (San Francisco Planning Department)

Why in the world would anyone change a historic theater that everyone loves? In short, APE’s answer is that the Castro needs some TLC, which APE can offer, but only if it’s allowed to present more than just film, including live music. And in order to present live music in a profitable, sustainable way, APE believes it needs to install a multi-level floor, or else audiences won’t come and it won’t make enough money to keep the doors open.

If you’re wondering why a bunch of seats stir such passion, you can get an earful of answers on Thursday night, sitting in those very seats where a century of San Francisco moviegoers have gazed up at a flickering screen and had life-changing experiences. As APE sees it, they’re preserving a crown jewel of the neighborhood, and paving a way to keep it open for another 100 years. But to so many who love it, the Castro is church, and altering its seating would be like ripping out the pews at Grace Cathedral.

The seats and carpet on the orchestra level of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Peter Pastreich is among the film congregation. “If they are able to flatten the floors and remove all of those seats, the building will no longer be suitable for film,” Pastreich says. “They’ll make it great for rock concerts and other events, and virtually unusable for all kinds of other things, particularly film.”

Pastreich is the executive director of the nonprofit Castro Theatre Conservancy, formed in June, which opposes APE’s floor plans. He admits that it’s virtually impossible in the modern day to keep a large, single-screen movie theater running on movies alone, at least with a for-profit model. In 2020, he says, members of his group approached the owners of the theater—Bay Properties, Inc., run by the Nasser family, whose ancestors built the theater in 1922—with a proposal to operate the Castro as a nonprofit, similar to the Roxie Theater in San Francisco or Film Forum in New York City.

“Instead, they made a deal with APE. Which isn’t really a problem, until APE converts the theater,” Pastreich says, noting that while APE plans to present film at the Castro, it operates no other venues that regularly show film.

“I’ve heard Gregg Perloff from Another Planet say, ‘The public will tell us what they want to see, and we will respond to that.’ Well, what that means, I fear, is if they can sell 1,400 tickets to Metallica, and only 300 tickets to a showing of Casablanca, of course they’re going to bring in Metallica and not Casablanca.”

The interior of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Conservancy is asking District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman to amend his enhanced landmark designation for the theater, which preserves “the full historical, architectural, aesthetic and cultural interest and value of the Castro Theatre,” to specifically include preservation of the orchestra-style seating. (Mandelman did not reply to a request for comment.) They are joined by the Castro LGBTQ+ Cultural District, which warns against “the intangible assets that are in danger of being lost if film repertory programming is ended at the theater.”


They’re not alone in their worries, as evidenced by the online comments on the announcement of the Castro’s new management. And the Conservancy boasts the support of legendary film directors including Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Coen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Barry Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Zwigoff, and John Waters, as well as San Francisco figures like Art Agnos, Jello Biafra, Cleve Jones, Sister Roma and Rebecca Solnit.

As for Thursday’s town hall hosted by APE, Pastreich is dismayed at the lack of a livestreaming option, as well as the format. His group has been given just five minutes to present, he says. “And the Q&A is handled by [former Supervisor] Bevan Dufty, who’s on the APE payroll, so he can recognize or not recognize whomever he wishes.”

Still, he’s hoping for a minor miracle: that film fans will voice such overwhelming opposition that APE will change their plans. “And realize,” he says, “that they’ve miscalculated.”

A Century projector at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On the phone, David Perry is adamant: “Film is, has been and always will be part of the Castro Theatre experience,” he says.

The owner of a public relations firm, Perry, like former Supervisor Dufty, was hired by APE this year specifically to manage controversy about the Castro Theatre. Like many, he recalls fondly his first visit to the theatre, in 1986. But in 2022, he says, “single-screen theaters around the country are on life support. That’s the reality in which we live.” A 1,400 seat theater, he says, needs to diversify its offerings to be sustainable.

Perry insists that the floor plans submitted to the city “are very, very much preliminary plans,” subject to input from sightline specialists, architects, and the film community. He denies the charge made by the Castro Theatre Conservancy that smaller film festivals and LGBTQ+ organizations will be “priced out” of using the Castro as a community resource, and clarifies that APE will keep the Castro’s rare 70mm projector that visiting filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson have utilized in the past.

The original 1922 proscenium of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022, which Another Planet plans to restore. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Perry takes issue with the criticism that APE is a giant, corporate promoter that’s out of step with the independent, community-focused history and spirit of the theater. (The company puts on the Outside Lands music festival every year, which in 2019 grossed $29.6 million.) Perry describes APE as a “small, local business” that “understands the Castro.”

Like the Paramount in Oakland or the Orpheum in Los Angeles, the Castro could theoretically host concerts, comedy, events and film with the theatre seating intact, as it’s already done for years. Asked why APE couldn’t simply keep the current seats—and consider removing the first five to eight rows for concerts—Perry defers to APE’s experience, and their “good sense of what it takes to program a multi-use venue.”

APE also has a good sense of what it takes to compete in the live music market. Their two direct rivals, Live Nation and Goldenvoice, operate multiple theaters and ballrooms in San Francisco: the Warfield (capacity 2,300), the Masonic Auditorium (3,481), the Fillmore (1,300), and the Regency Ballroom (1,400). APE, on the other hand, operates the small Independent (500) and the large Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (8,500), with no mid-sized options in between.

Another Planet Entertainment plans restorations of both the marquee and neon “blade” of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco’s Castro District, pictured here on July 28, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

So, in San Francisco, APE needs a venue like the Castro to stay competitive. Which explains why, as APE CEO Gregg Perloff told KQED in January, APE approached the Nassers during the pandemic with a proposal to operate the theater.

“They were looking for the right stewardship for the theater,” Perloff said. “This is their baby. And we need to respect the tremendous work they’ve done in making the theater a part of the community.”

The Castro has become such a part of the community, in fact, that generations of moviegoers feel a strong sense of ownership over the theater. Part of what’s happening now is the shock that they are not the owners; the Nassers are, and they’re entitled to do what they want with it.

But the way the Castro Theatre has become such a community asset is primarily through film. As Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence asks, “Do we really need another concrete concert hall when glamorous film houses are disappearing around the country?”

In other words: while there are already plenty of music venues in San Francisco, there’s only one Castro Theatre.

A Town Hall on the future of the Castro Theatre takes place at 6pm on Thursday, Aug. 11, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Questions and comments for the Q&A must be submitted at the event via an online portal. Details here.

Share your thoughts

However the future may look for the Castro Theatre, a live-music promoter taking over its operations marks an end of an era for this iconic space. And ahead of these potential changes, here at KQED we want to take a moment to highlight your memories of the venue.

Tell us using the box below: What was your favorite movie you saw at the Castro Theatre? The most memorable night you had? The best (or worst) date you went on?

Share your thoughts, and we’d love to feature your words here on KQED.org and on our social media channels.


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