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Another One Bites the Dust: One More SF Movie Theater Trades Charm for Luxury

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Movie Theater

The fog lingered in the sky and it was the perfect afternoon for a matinee. I am lucky to have the irregular schedule of working nights so, while much of the world is pounding away at the keyboard, I have the privilege of enjoying the small delight of a daytime flick. The buzz for Blue is the Warmest Color was enough to pique my interest and so, after a quick movie search, I was pleased to see the Embarcadero Center Cinema had reopened after several months of renovation. The Embarcadero has been one of my favorite movie theaters since moving to San Francisco. The longish train ride, the confusing location, and the indie films were just a few reasons why I was eager to see the tweaks the theater had made. Turns out they were a little more than tweaks.

The new Embarcadero Theater is basically Kabuki meets Opera Plaza. I believe Kabuki to be one of the nicest and cleanest movie theaters in San Francisco and Opera Plaza, the most intimate. But I rarely want to visit either. Only with giant hits like Gravity in its first week of release do I ever want to make seat reservations. With Embarcadero, you now have that option and from what I could tell, it is encouraged. I often see movies alone and don’t feel I should have to reserve a seat for one. And obviously, I’m not obligated. But it always makes me wonder if the movie will be sold out. Even on a Tuesday afternoon! Better safe than sorry I suppose, but I tend to switch my seat at least once so I can be in perfect positioning for when the previews begin. I often choose the back left quadrant, maybe three seats in. And with ticket reservations, I have one chance to choose and no real (moral) choice to switch.

Additionally, Embarcadero implemented the Opera Plaza-style mini theaters with the likes of 30 (reclining!) seats to give the illusion that you are just in your living room, watching Netflix. Why would I want to pay $10.50 (plus the always ridiculous surcharge if purchasing online) to be back in my house on my couch? Going to the movies is an experience and -- correct me if I’m wrong -- these reclining seats are basically telling people to fall asleep and providing them with all the tools they need to do so. Oh, and if you want to get your buzz on, there’s an enormous bar with like five bartenders who are willing to help you with that. Where once you had to show up to the movie wasted, now all the potent potables and spirits are at your disposal. What lux!

Photo: Gerry Brague, via Flickr

My perspective of the Embarcadero Theater has changed. The joy of going alone on a whim, sitting in the very back of a very uncrowded dark theater, and sobbing to the sadness (or to the happiness!) of life through film has all been stripped away for me. The art house and single-screen theaters are falling like dominoes throughout San Francisco. We are holding on tight to the Roxie, the Castro, and the Clay (weirdly, owned by Landmark along with Opera and Embarcadero), and lamenting those abandoned theaters on Mission Street and Haight Street. Where these massive multiplexes, like the Metreon and AMC, are playing huge blockbusters at midnight, it was a small victory a few years ago to see the midnight showing of Spirited Away at the Clay, which had its own controversy a few years back when Landmark wanted to step away from the apparent money pit, but ended up striking up a short-term deal.


The city of San Francisco is in a constant state of upgrade. The price of rent is the topic of every Friday night bar conversation. And like the Clay, these little theaters have issues bringing in the amount of money it takes to pay the rent and keep the doors open. What Landmark did with the Embarcadero is obviously an investment. While it was long overdue for some remodeling, there’s also the hope it will draw more people into its comfy reclining seats. While some may be excited to hang out in the new lounge with their martini from the 75-foot bar, others might shy away from the glamor of it all. When I want to see a movie, I go to where it's playing. I go to it even if it’s the Metreon. I won’t refuse to see a movie because of where it's screening. Ultimately, it's about the movie. I ended up not choosing to see Blue is the Warmest Color at the Embarcadero that day, but the only other alternative was the Kabuki. I rode the 22 up Fillmore, snuck in my own water, chose a seat in the back, and wept throughout most of the last third. There was a couple sitting just a seat over, doing exactly the same.

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