Movies are back where they belong on the big screen, with fare ranging from “Demon Slayer” to “Nomadland” on the bill. In San Francisco, where most adults have received at least one COVID shot and where avid filmgoers are plentiful, both theater operators and fans are excited and hopeful.
Movie theaters scheduled to reopen in San Francisco this month (with COVID-safety measures in place) include the Roxie Theater, Balboa Theatre, Presidio Theatre and Marina Theatre. These independently operated cinemas join the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the more commercial Kabuki, Metreon and Century 9 sites on the slowly but steadily recovering screen scene.
Cinemas, some remodeled, scheduled to reopen in months ahead, include the Vogue Theatre, slated for June 11; the palatial Castro Theatre, screening selections from the Frameline film festival in June; and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission on July 23. The 4 Star Theatre, Opera Plaza Cinema and Regal Stonestown, all plan to reopen as well, with dates to be announced.
Streaming movies at home can’t compare with sitting in a dark theater and having stories on the screen entertain and transport audiences. The emotion is deeper, the scenery grander, the cliffhangers tenser, and the faces of stars, whether they be Frances McDormand, Viola Davis, Mads Mikkelsen or Gunda, more superb.
Some already have returned to theaters, including film critic Jeffrey Anderson. A combination of anxiety and joy is how he describes a March theatrical press screening.
“I hadn’t seen the publicist or my colleagues in a year, and it was weirdly exciting,” says Anderson, whose reviews appear regularly in the Examiner. “I felt like hugging them all.”
“The theater was eerie,” he adds, recalling the site’s near-emptiness and long-dormant feeling. “There was no popcorn smell, and the posters hadn’t been changed in a year. But when the lights went down and the movie started, I felt a huge thrill.”
At an April public screening at the Tanforan, it was business as usual, sort of, Anderson says: “A live person behind a plastic shield scanned my digital ticket from my phone, and people were waiting in line for food. Hand-lotion dispensers were everywhere, and the bathrooms were rigged up for social distancing. …
“I usually buy popcorn when I go to Friday-morning duds that aren’t shown to critics, but I kept my mask on, and did not eat or drink. Someday I’d love to be able to enjoy popcorn with a movie again.”
San Francisco cinemas already open are AMC (Kabuki, Metreon) and Century (Century 9) venues screening movies such as “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Nobody” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
The still-closed Century 20 in Daly City is being remodeled and should reopen in June.
Not often does a multi-screen shopping-complex theater show independent films, but that’s the case with Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, now offering “Nomadland,” ”Together Together” and “Oscar Nominated Shorts” programs. (Its 1995 grand-opening lineup offered a French drama, a documentary and a Parker Posey comedy.)
Paul Serwitz, president and chief operating officer of Landmark Theatres, which also operates the still-closed Opera Plaza Cinema, explains the company’s cautious but steady approach to reopening:
“Though we are committed to serving the arthouse community, reopening other theaters, like the Opera Plaza, is subject to seeing increased levels of theatrical attendance to support those operations,” Serwitz says. “The only other Bay Area theater we’ve reopened is the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley while the remainder of our East Bay locations wait for stronger signs of movie-going.
“That said, we are hopeful that the slow, but positive, trends we’re seeing will provide the spark to expand in the near future.”
Serwitz adds that the Opera Plaza Cinema will soon undergo a “significant remodel,” but likely won’t reopen until after that occurs.
Bay Area moviegoers are among the nation’s top audiences for independent film, and the Roxie in the Mission is a primary indie venue. While it has offered virtual screenings during the pandemic (a program to continue for viewers unready to return to theaters), staff and friends are enthusiastic about the community-focused cinema’s reopening on May 21.
“It was beyond exhilarating putting tickets on sale for our first public screenings in well over a year,” says Roxie executive director Lex Sloan. “As people purchased tickets online, I was overwhelmed with feelings of hope — not only hope for the Roxie but all of the wonderful independent cinemas in the Bay Area and for the filmmakers whose work we cannot wait to show.”
The Roxie’s opening-night movie is being selected by a viewer poll, which has yielded more than 2,000 nominees.
“As a mission-driven community-based organization, it only feels right that our patrons pick our first film back,” Sloan says.
The finalists: “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Vertigo.” Close behind were “Harold and Maude,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Koyaanisqatsi.”
Sloan adds that Instagram write-in votes for local films, like “Vampariah” and “Colma: The Musical,” “surprised us.”
Additionally, the Roxie will host live performances and artist Q&As.
Cinema SF’s Balboa Theatre, which has been hosting fun outdoor activities during the pandemic, will reopen May 14 with a weekend-long “Godzilla’s Monster Bash.” Organizers promise “10 classic Godzilla flicks, including a 60th-anniversary showing of ‘Mothra,’ as well as vendors, artists, raffle prizes, and more.”
Frank Lee, of the family-owned Lee Neighborhood Theatres, says the Presidio will reopen on May 21; the Marina Theatre follows on May 28; and the 4 Star’s reopening date is to be determined.
“The encouragement from our members, patrons, and community partners is why I have tremendous hope that people will return to the cinema,” says Sloan. “Now, much like the fresh batches of popcorn we will be popping, I can finally taste it.”