Opera Plaza Cinema gets a facelift, reopens Friday

Rescue is part of a movement to preserve city’s historic indie film houses

San Francisco’s independent movie house scene became four screens richer Friday when the Opera Plaza Cinema, closed since March 2020, reopened.

For cinephiles, the reopening is an exciting development in the survival story of the small but significant movie theater, which has endured not only the COVID-related closure affecting all San Francisco cinemas, but also a plan by its landlord to shut it down. Thanks to arrangements involving philanthropists, a nonprofit foundation and the theater’s longtime operators, the theater has been rescued and upgraded. And on its new screens, it will begin showing the kind of movies for which it is known.

“We are eager to welcome our audience back to the completely renovated Opera Plaza Cinema,” says Paul Serwitz, president and COO of Landmark Theatres, the Los Angeles-based company that has operated the theater for 30 years. “Regulars will enjoy a significantly enhanced moviegoing experience.”

For those regulars, the Opera Plaza Cinema is a place to be for viewing independent, international, under-the-radar and creative films, many of them critically acclaimed or award-winning and some of them not playing anywhere else in the Bay Area.

The newly remodeled Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema features cozier seating. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

The newly remodeled Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema features cozier seating. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Movies that have screened at the cinema over the decades include Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” Zhang Yimou’s “Ju Dou,” Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion,” Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama,” the Oscar-nominated short-film programs and documentaries about subjects ranging from Muhammad Ali to Edward Snowden to a beekeeper in North Macedonia.

“The programming at the Opera Plaza seems to be what endears the theater to people,” says Margot Gerber, Landmark’s vice president of marketing and publicity. “Some of our online reviews talk about how the theater itself was not the most comfortable place, but people loved it just the same.”

Known affectionately (and sometimes a bit disparagingly) for its non-luxurious vibe, the intimate-scale cinema, at 601 Van Ness Ave., is at once a neighborhood theater, an arthouse popular with cinephiles and a component of San Francisco’s Civic Center and nearby Hayes Valley arts arenas. It’s part of a landscape that also contains opera, symphony, ballet, jazz and lecture-hall elements.

The rescue of the Opera Plaza Cinema, which occurred before the COVID lockdown, involves a deal between Landmark Theaters and the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to preserving historic San Francisco movie theaters.

After the Opera Plaza property owner stated the cinema was no longer economically viable and filed an application to convert it into office space, the foundation stepped in. Philanthropists donated to a $1.2 million renovation — improvements essential to keeping the theater competitive. A 10-year lease is now maintained by the foundation, which has added the Opera Plaza Cinema to its family of movie houses. (Already in the group were the Balboa Theatre, whose lease the foundation also maintains, and the Vogue Theatre, which the foundation owns.)

Landmark Theatres, meanwhile, continues to operate the Opera Plaza Cinema.

Jack Bair, co-founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, welcomes folks to the newly renovated Opera Plaza Cinemas at a reopening event. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Jack Bair, co-founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, welcomes folks to the newly renovated Opera Plaza Cinemas at a reopening event. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” says Jack Bair, senior vice president and general counsel of the San Francisco Giants and co-founder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. In other words, Landmark, the foundation and the moviegoing public all benefit.

The upgrades include larger screens and reclining seats and rockers — replacing the smaller screens and less comfortable seating that audiences have cited as shortcomings. Other enhancements include new digital signage and an expanded concession stand. Beer and wine will be available in the coming months, Bair says.

What hasn’t changed is the focus on independent and international cinema, with an occasional quality big-studio offering on the bill. “San Francisco has a history of an interest in the arts,” Bair says. “Arthouses are part of that.”

Attendees sit in new, plush seats at a reopening event for the Opera Plaza Cinemas. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

Attendees sit in new, plush seats at a reopening event for the Opera Plaza Cinemas. (Photo by Pamela Gentile)

On that note, ready to hit the screens is the theater’s first post-reopening weekly slate. Viewers can look for:

“I Was a Simple Man,” director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s surreal drama about a Hawaii family whose dying elderly patriarch is visited by ghosts of his past.

“Hive,” a fact-inspired Sundance-winning drama in which widowed Kosovo townswomen band together and begin producing a local food product to improve their circumstances.

“Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time,” a documentary in which filmmaker and Vonnegut friend Robert Weide explores the life and work of the late novelist (“Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle”) and how personal traumas, including a POW experience, shaped his writing.

“Two Quintessential San Francisco Movie Classics,” a pairing of “Bullitt” (1968) and “Dirty Harry” (1971), featuring Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, respectively.

The action taken to save the Opera Plaza Cinema makes clear the theater means a lot to arthouse audiences. The Opera Plaza isn’t the sort of neighborhood theater where residents can see a Marvel adventure or a Disney animated family comedy. It specializes in smaller, lower-profile and non-mainstream films that are difficult to find elsewhere.

“It’s not just about saving a theater — it’s about saving content,” Bair says.

Theaters additionally generate activity that benefits nearby businesses, such as stores and restaurants, Bair says, adding the Opera Plaza Cinema’s presence should help revitalize the Van Ness corridor.

The area, which is also home to the recently opened CGV 14 Van Ness multiplex, has been in a depressed state due to the COVID-19 pandemic and several years of construction-related disruptions.

Operating an arthouse theater, especially during a pandemic, remains a challenge. But while moviegoers haven’t come back in droves, their numbers are growing steadily.

“All theaters have been watching audiences come back slowly since some theaters began reopening in August last year,” says Gerber. “Each week, attendance increases a bit,” she says, citing ticket sales for “The French Dispatch,” “Spencer,” and “Belfast” as an encouraging sign that moviegoers are interested in theatrical fare on the indie side of the spectrum.

Gerber also notes “Disney+ and HBO Max have cut into the box office for films streaming on those channels.”

The Opera Plaza Cinema came into being in 1984, and in 1991 Landmark began operating it.

Even when in substantial need of an upgrade, the theater attracted filmgoers seeking non-blockbuster movies for grown-ups.

“The Great Beauty,” “Shoplifters,” “Citizenfour,” “God’s Own Country,” and “Columbus” are “some of the films that did very, very well at Opera Plaza,” Gerber says.

While San Francisco’s arthouse and repertory theaters have decreased in number over the decades — Landmark’s own Bridge, Clay, Lumiere and Gateway cinemas are among the departed — they are, overall, hanging in there. The Roxie Theater has remained a prime exhibitor of independent and international cinema, and the Vogue, Balboa, Marina, Presidio and Alamo Drafthouse / New Mission theaters regularly feature indie films. Aware of the Bay Area’s interest in independent cinema, commercial houses like the Metreon, Kabuki, Stonestown, Century 9 and CGV Van Ness 14 tend to have at least one less commercial offering on their slate.

The Castro Theatre, for those wondering, is still open only for special events. The 4 Star Theatre has a new owner and is temporarily closed, and scheduled to reopen this spring with fun, rep-style programming.

As for the Opera Plaza Cinema, supporters hope the renovated site will attract newcomers and please old-timers, including those who, in the past, embraced the theater for the movies it showed while simultaneously wishing it would upgrade the premises.

“Now we can see what they think of the remodel,” says Gerber. “They should be happy that the new screens are larger!”

IF YOU GO

Opera Plaza Cinema

Where: 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: Reopens Friday

Admission: $10 to $13; $7 on Tuesdays

Contact: (415) 771-0183, www.landmarktheatres.com

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