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Higher Rental Costs at Castro Theatre Put Small Film Festivals Under Strain

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a shot of the interior of a movie theater, the screen shows that this is the 2014 Arab Film Festival at San Francisco's Castro Theatre
The 2014 Arab Film Festival at San Francisco's Castro Theatre. For most smaller, independent film festivals, Another Planet Entertainment's proposed renovations mean their future at the theater is up in the air. (Courtesy of the Arab Film Festival)

This report contains a clarification.

The Castro Theatre was where Joe Talbot got his very first film job. He was 19, had just dropped out of high school and was hired by Noir City film festival founder Eddie Muller to make a documentary about the festival’s history at the Castro.

Almost 10 years later, Talbot returned to the Castro Theatre — this time in a double-breasted gray suit and Giants cap — for the premiere of his 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

For Talbot, the most memorable part of the theater, which was a formative part of his childhood and his film education, is its velvety red seats.

But in June, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a controversial renovation plan by the theater’s new management, the live music promoter Another Planet Entertainment (APE), to replace the Castro Theatre’s seating and raked floor with multi-level flat tiers suited for standing-room concerts. While APE has said the Castro Theatre will still show film, it will do so far less frequently, and moviegoers will have to sit on temporary chairs.

a white man in a suit and a Black man in a green jacket sit on a sidewalk looking at the camera
Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails on the set of ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.’ (Courtesy of 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco')

What’s more, higher rental costs under the new management — and fewer seats for which to sell tickets — have put some local film festivals, like the one Talbot made his first paid film about, in jeopardy.

“I’m not a fan of it — it’s a big loss,” Talbot said. “It’s a bummer to have people occupying such a wonderful space that don’t appreciate its history or understand its importance.”

‘Like a temple’

Eddie Muller, the founder of the Noir City film festival who gave Talbot the job, has abandoned hope of a future at the Castro Theatre altogether.

“Taking out the seats reduces capacity, forces us to upcharge on tickets and makes it inhospitable for film festivals,” Muller said. “They’re changing the whole basic operational strategy of the venue.”

For those small festivals that have wanted to stay at the Castro, “now all the accouterments of film festivals are added costs, like hiring someone to operate the projectors, which used to be built in.”

Asked if festivals were being asked to shoulder additional costs for a projector and house manager, APE spokesperson David Perry said, “Yes, that is true.”

Eddie Muller introduces a film at the Noir City film festival at the Castro Theatre. Having called San Francisco home since 2003, it moved to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre in 2022 after new management took over the Castro Theatre. (Noir City )

During the latest installment of her film festival, Cinema Italia, Amelia Antonucci looked up at the illuminated grand ceiling of the Castro Theatre as she stood at the mezzanine and thought to herself, “this is magical.”

“The Castro is like a temple for classic Italian movies,” Antonucci said of its breathtaking and eccentric mishmash of Art Deco, Renaissance and Spanish architecture. “It’s the only place in San Francisco that has this kind of magic.”

For the past 10 years, Antonucci has organized the annual and sometimes biannual celebration of Italian film with the help of the Italian Consulate. But the 2022 festival might have been her last.

“Now only the festivals that can afford new costs, like Frameline, will continue,” she said.

(L-R) Actors Robin Williams, Virginia Madsen and Lily Tomlin arrive at the Castro theater for the closing night of the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival (now known as SFFILM).
(L-R) Actors Robin Williams, Virginia Madsen and Lily Tomlin arrive at the Castro theater for the closing night of the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival (now known as SFFILM). (David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

When Antonucci hosted her latest festival — her first under the theater’s new management — there were unexpected extra costs, she says, in addition to existing ones like venue rental fees and film licensing fees. Rather than allow her to use only volunteers as she had in the past, Antonucci said, APE required her to pay additional fees for their staff.

“APE said the price was the same, but that wasn’t true,” she said.

red seats in a beloved movie palace
The interior of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on Aug. 10, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Perry said that APE’s higher rental fees and expenses for the Castro are “totally in line” with other similarly sized venues, adding that, due to “artificially low” rent and fees, the Castro Theatre had not broken even for 10 years.

But as the physical space of the Castro Theatre changes to accommodate concerts and performances, festivals like Cinema Italia are under even more strain to meet costs.

With the reducing seating and increased rental fees, “I’m worried what that will mean for festivals like mine,” Antonucci said.

An unsure future for some festivals

The outlook is indeed brighter for Frameline. A festival representative told KQED in an email that the festival “will be at the venue for the entirety of APE’s 20-year lease.”

But for others, the future is still unclear. Even the smallest film festivals involve many moving parts and funding sources that have to be coordinated months — if not a year — in advance.

Berlin & Beyond Festival Director Sophoan Sorn told KQED in an email that the Castro Theatre was “unavailable” for his 2023 festival and that he has had no communication with APE about the 2024 festival. A representative for CAAMFest declined to comment, but added that the festival hasn’t had recent communication with APE.

The Jewish Film Festival declined to comment, while 3rd i, the Arab Film Festival and the Silent Film Festival could not be reached for comment.

The Castro Theatre marquee reads 'SFFILM festival welcome back to the movies'
The Castro Theatre, was the venue for the 65th annual SFFILM Festival in 2022, but in 2023, following APE’s acquisition, the festival moved to other theaters. SFFILM Executive Director Anne Lai said the 2024 festival will be elsewhere due to renovations. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)

SFFILM Executive Director Anne Lai told KQED in an email that the Castro won’t be available for SFFILM’s 2024 festival, presumably because of renovation.

“What we are more eager to learn from them is what the rental costs and booking availability will be post-renovation so that we can accurately plan and budget,” she wrote.

In a December statement, Lai had expressed concerns about increased cost but also about accessibility and the theater’s importance in San Francisco’s queer history and culture.

Muller is skeptical about how APE will preserve the queer roots and community of the Castro Theatre. But he’s optimistic about Noir City’s new home across the Bay at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre, despite having to raise ticket prices to make up for the theater’s smaller capacity. The greater loss is a cultural and community one, Muller says.

“I honestly don’t feel sorry for myself — I feel sorry for the city,” he said. “The Castro was the last single-screen movie palace in San Francisco, and by changing it into a concert venue, you’re saying that San Francisco is giving up on movies.”

Aug. 27: The story has been updated to more accurately reflect the additional expenses of renting the Castro for Cinema Italia.



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