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Mick LaSalle SF Chronicle-Audience fading for repertory film

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Mick LaSalle SF Chronicle-Audience fading for repertory film

Postby Jezebel38 » February 11th, 2008, 10:47 pm

I copied this from another film board:

Audience fading for repertory movie theaters
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic

Monday, February 11, 2008

On Thursday, when an estimated thousand people pack the Castro Theatre to see a 40-year-old movie - Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo & Juliet" - it will seem like classic repertory programming is alive and well in San Francisco. Olivia Hussey, the film's star, will be interviewed on stage. There will be photos snapped and autographs signed, and in all likelihood, one of those only-in-San-Francisco feelings will pervade the air.

But when it's all over, producer Marc Huestis - after three months of work leading up to the big night - will net only a modest profit. And that's if he's lucky.

For more than two decades, ever since the arrival of VHS tape, San Francisco exhibitors have been scrambling to find a business model that supports classic repertory programming. Exhibitors have devised and revised workable survival strategies, but time after time, those strategies have been undercut by new threats - such as the advent of DVD, Netflix and now downloadable movies. They've tried longer runs, shorter runs, themed festivals, celebrity guests, relatives of deceased celebrities, autograph signing parties and live entertainment, all to less and less effect. Some look ahead to digital projection as a possible panacea, but that's a few years away.

All exhibitors concur that the prospects for repertory in San Francisco have become downright bleak, and that just within the past year business has gotten even worse. In movie-loving, cineast San Francisco, the repertory audience seems to be drying up.

"Last year everything changed," Huestis said. "There was a drop everywhere, whether due to the economy or just the culmination of the new technology that exists right now. The old models are losing audiences. It's really scary."

Just look around. The Roxie Cinema, which in the 1990s had the best retrospectives of any commercial theater in the entire country, has all but given up repertory programming. The Castro Theatre's calendar was once wall-to-wall classics and foreign masterpieces, during the reign of its nationally respected programmer, Anita Monga. Then Monga was let go in 2004, and today the theater relies mostly on its outside festivals and nonfilm events to maintain its profit margin.

Perhaps the most telling example is the most recent. Gary Meyer, a co-founder of Landmark Theatres and one of the savviest and most energetic exhibitors in the area, did his best to make a go of repertory at his Balboa Theater. He gave the Balboa a gorgeous renovation and programmed it with adventurous retrospectives, such as a Paramount pre-Code series in 2005 and a Boris Karloff tribute in 2006. The theater had everything going for it but audiences, and Meyer had to abandon repertory programming by the second half of 2006.

"To have Boris Karloff's daughter there, at the biggest Karloff retrospective in history, with an audience of just 50 people," Meyer said, "that's pretty disconcerting."

Fifteen years ago, that Karloff tribute might have been a success, and 30 years ago, there would have been lines around the block. And that has been the story everywhere. For every "Sing-Along Sound of Music," there are a dozen disaster stories, sometimes involving formulas that were once surefire. For example, in 1993, director James Toback came to the Roxie Cinema and talked to a sold-out crowd following a screening of his 1978 classic, "Fingers." The energy was electric and continued out onto the sidewalk. But in 2006, when Toback came to the Roxie for an ambitious retrospective of his films, the spectacle was downright embarrassing. He stood in front of the house talking to no more than 20 to 25 people.

"In the mid- to late '70s," said Bill Longen, events producer at the Castro, "you could run a Bette Davis double feature and pack the theater - and they didn't even have to be good Bette Davis pictures."

In those pre-VHS days, the business was pretty straightforward. Repertory theaters would show a different double feature every day. Movie lovers kept track by pasting programming schedules of the various theaters on their walls, and these schedules were consulted often: Aside from the Late Show, rep houses were the only means by which people got to see old movies.

This golden era wasn't entirely golden. As Bruce Goldstein, who programs repertory for New York's Film Forum, points out, "Repertory then was bad 16 millimeter prints, beaten to death, with scratches and splices. Studios didn't have classics divisions in those days, and so there were no new prints." But there were audiences, then - made up to a large extent of young people, who'd been exposed to cinema societies in college and were reveling in the buried treasure of classic American film.

The rise of VHS tape exerted the first culling effect. Locally, the Richelieu disappeared and the Gateway converted into a first-run art house. But as Bill Banning, owner of the Roxie Cinema, has said, exhibitors could survive if they were willing to innovate. By the time he took over the Roxie in 1984, Banning knew "you couldn't show straight repertory and make it. You had to show top-notch films, and you had to have a strong theme - film noir, pre-Code. That worked into the '90s."

Another innovation of the late '80s and '90s was the "long-run revival," the creation of Bruce Goldstein, head of repertory programming at New York's Film Forum since 1986. "If you change the bill every day," he said, "the studios have no incentive at all to make a print. So what we did is we'd go to them and say, 'If you make a print, we'll give you a run, and we'll publicize it.' That's our standard for a long-run revival - it has to be a brand new print."

Goldstein's standard became the standard nationally, and following Goldstein's lead, it became common in the '80s and '90s for exhibitors, when advertising a "long run" or "premiere" revival, to talk up the newness of the print. The promise of a fresh print inspired audiences to flock to films they'd seen before - even TV staples, such as "Casablanca" or "The Wizard of Oz" - for the chance to see them projected in pristine condition onto the big screen.

The combination of long runs and inventive festivals made the Roxie Cinema a haven for movie lovers in the mid-1990s. Under the programming of Elliot Lavine, the theater had a Norma Shearer tribute, the U.S. premiere of the Hong Kong exploitation film, "Naked Killer," and a retrospective of the films of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney - and that's just a sampling from one program calendar, from the fall of 1994.

"In the 1990s, you could still do things," Lavine said. "We still had an audience composed of people who'd grown up seeing movies in theaters. VHS was always a consideration. If a movie we wanted to show was on video, we'd pair it up with something not available. But the bad quality of video made theaters in contention."

Gradually other factors started taking a bite out of repertory. "At our westerns festival in 1996, we showed John Wayne in 'The Searchers,' and it did nothing, but other westerns not nearly as well-known drew four and five times that business. Then I looked back and saw Turner Classic Movies had shown it three times in the previous two months. So TCM hurt a little. But the biggest demon that would come down the road - DVD - made it almost impossible. DVD was the nail in the coffin."

Longen agrees. "DVDs have killed the rep business."

The arrival of DVD led to Netflix, which began business in 1999. Meanwhile, the technology for showing movies at home has improved exponentially. Video projectors have come into home use, as well as plasma screens. TVs are getting bigger, and the picture clarity keeps improving. High-definition televisions will soon become the norm, and eventually the DVD as we know it will give way completely to high-definition discs. Already we're seeing a battle for the future play out between two high-definition DVD formats, HDTV and Blu Ray. The latter appears to be winning.

With the home viewing experience suddenly reaching new heights of splendor, what conceivably could be the incentive for seeing classic films in a theater? The answer is simple and not what anyone consciously thought of during the repertory heyday: Other people. After all, in all our memories of transcendent theatergoing experiences, those other people - those strangers watching with you - were part of the experience, too. A big part.

"Movies are a group participation art form, to be in a room with 300 people laughing infectiously," Lavine said. "To see a movie at home, even with a group of friends, is like seeing it under a microscope. These were made to be seen by hundreds of people at the same time."

New Yorkers haven't forgotten this. Under Bruce Goldstein's brilliant programming, Film Forum's repertory is doing better than ever. "DVD hasn't hurt at all - DVD may have helped us," he said. "It has certainly jump-started studio restorations - there are great prints of just about everything now. And it's created a whole new generation of movie buffs."

But just by virtue of being in Manhattan, Film Forum has some advantages that San Francisco theaters don't have - a massive population, cheap and ubiquitous taxi service, a rapid subway system, a tremendous concentration of media, and a tradition for nightlife surpassing that of any other city in the country. If repertory is ever going to be reborn in San Francisco, exhibitors are going to find a formula that can work here.

Longen doesn't see much hope. "I hate to say it, but as the years go on, it's going to die a very slow death, and I love classic films," he said. "I think Gary Meyer proved it (at the Balboa). The audience isn't there."

But Meyer doesn't agree. "It's very difficult at this time," Meyer said. "But I have hope that in a couple of years, when digital becomes more available, we might be able to do it. With film, there are $150 shipping costs, and I have to pay a projectionist $16 an hour to work from noon to 11. Digital would reduce the cost and make it feasible."

"With digital," Lavine said, "the studio could send you a transmission - or a DVD for 41 cents shipping instead of $150. You want a business model? Throw out your projectors and invest in the best video projection you can get. You could even play store-bought DVDs, if you contact the right holder. You could charge five or six dollars admission instead of 10. And you might be able, if you're personable enough, to play this stuff at a very reduced rate. Run the Universal logo on-screen as people come in. Sell DVDs in the lobby. There are creative ways. Exhibitors can either go to bed angry or wake up and change, because this is what it is."

In the meantime, Huestis is preparing for his "Romeo & Juliet" show on Thursday, putting everything he's got into it. "I'm going to hotels, giving postcards to concierges, doing clip reels, arranging ground transportation for the star, answering phones, accumulating the Will Call list, stuffing Will Call envelopes, and making the signage for Will Call and reserve seats," Huestis said. "This one's make or break."

E-mail Mick LaSalle at mlasalle(at)sfchronicle(dot)com.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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Postby Ann Harding » February 12th, 2008, 8:28 am

What Mick LaSalle is describing in San Francisco certainly applies to London & Paris, alas. I have been a moviegoer since the mid 80s. In those days, all the Paris repertory cinemas were doing big business. I saw with packed audiences countless classics from Johnny Guitar to The Awful Truth. And watching a movie on a big screen together with an audience is really the right way to watch movies! :) In those days, they were very little American classics available on VHS and no cable channels.
Then came the DVD and cable channels. Nowadays, rep cinemas are struggling to attract their audience back. Myself, I do not go as often as I used to. Main reason: they show always the same classics that I have already seen on a big screen. I wished they offered more rarities. Whenever some interesting lesser known film is shown, I am going.
The other competitor in Paris is the French Cinémathèque. It was refurbished 3 years ago and now offers 3 state-of-the-art screens. On top, you can get a super-cheap subscription rate of 10 euros/month for unlimited access....hard to beat!
In London, there are very few rep cinemas left. They have been killed off by the enormous rents of central London. A few survive together with the National Film Theatre.
But, overall, Paris remains a paradise for classic movielovers. You get the biggest choice of classics you can dream of. But, for how long? I am worried that in 10 years time, most people will stay at home and watch their small screens..... :(

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Postby MissGoddess » February 12th, 2008, 9:48 am

I consider myself very fortunate to live in Manhattan where there are truly more screenings of classics than I have time to see! Right now, at the Museum of the Moving Image, they are having a John Ford at Fox film festival. The Museum of Modern Art constantly shows old films, many of them rarities. At the NY Film Forum they just wrapped an Otto Preminger festival and in the Spring they will be showing dozens of features from United Artists (including The Misfits---for which I will attend EVERY screening). Pat Neal is also scheduled to appear soon for a screening of A Face in the Crowd and last night Sidney Lumet appeared for 12 Angry Men and a retrospective of his career (I wimped out and didn't go---it was 20 degrees outside and cold weather is one thing that always defeats me. I think only if John Ford rose from his grave to attend a screening would I be tempted to go out in weather like this).

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Postby jdb1 » February 12th, 2008, 10:08 am

Just as the film people finally convinced the new generation that it's OK to look at a black and white movie, they must now work their magic to let the VHS/DVD generation know that classic films were made to be seen on a big screen, and that said films will look different, and better, than they do on a TV screen.

Once the uninitiated have had the experience of seeing a 12-foot tall Cary Grant (or whoever), or wide-vista , skillful panning and tracking shots, they'll get the idea. After all, the IMAX phenom has a big audience -- I don't think the younger set understands that older films were made to be seen "big." I will never forget my 10 year old daughter's first, awed sighting of Clark Gable on the big screen in a theater. She was hooked on Classics for life.

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Postby Sue Sue Applegate » February 15th, 2008, 6:27 pm

Seeing classic films in the venue that they were designed for is inspiring,
and a joy I relish, but sadly, the experiences are few and far between.
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Postby Moraldo Rubini » February 17th, 2008, 12:49 pm

That was a heartbreaking read, but much of it seems to be true. Actually, there seems to be an extreme and I don't understand it. I've seen both extremes in my recent big screen experiences. For instance, I saw Humphrey Bogart in Conflict at the Castro, during their recent Film Noir festival and the house was packed. But I saw Powell/Pressburger's beautifully restored and rarely seen Oh... Rosalinda!! at Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre and there were probably ten people in the audience. Roshoman had a good crowd when I saw that in June.

I understand the appeal of Film Noir, but why aren't these audiences exploring other classic films? It's so disheartening to sit in a nearly empty theatre to see these beauties. A year or two ago I saw Gold Diggers of 1933 at the Castro. There was a good smattering of people in the house, but I was struck by their surprise. It was apparent that most of the attendees had never seen the flick, and by their gasps, laughter and thunderous applause they were delighted by their new discovery. You'd think this would've inspired them to see more.

Ann Harding, I was comforted to see that Paris cinemas are still going strong. I have many movie-going memories of the City of Light. But I'd heard that my old favorite cinema there -- Pagode -- was closed, and that's a tragedy. I hope the building, with its dramatic frescoes has been saved. I wonder if the Grand Rex is still in business? That was one of the theatres with a cloud machine.

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Postby Lzcutter » February 17th, 2008, 1:46 pm

Moraldo,

My heart is singing at the return of you and BenW. :P

To address your question, I think part of the problem is that people tend to focus on film noirs and pre-codes exclusively as if they are the missing holy grails of cinema. Why? Because they have heard or read about the sexy content of pre-codes or the fatalistic film noirs filled with expressionistic lighting and bad dames.

They tend to forget that there are other genres out there that should be just as explored.

Here in Los Angeles we are incredibly lucky to have the UCLA Archives doing pre-codes all month, the Cinemateque at the Egyptian doing Ford at Fox, the Arclight featuring a weekly pick from the AFI and a smattering of revival/rep houses still hanging in there.

But we are, unfortunately, not the norm. When I arrived in Los Angeles over thirty years ago, there was a revival/rep house on every corner (or so it seemed). Today 98% of them live on in my memory only.

The Castro has been through some major up and downs the last few years with the loss of their beloved programmer a few years ago. I'm glad to see they are still trying to make it work as I really want Mr Cutter and I to come to SF one of these days and take in a movie.

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Postby Moraldo Rubini » February 17th, 2008, 2:01 pm

Lzcutter wrote:The Castro has been through some major up and downs the last few years with the loss of their beloved programmer a few years ago.

It's funny; I love that the programmer -- Anita Monga -- was such a star here in San Francisco. I mean how many people know the name of the programmer of their local revival house? There was such an outcry when she left. (Check out this old website: http://www.duboce.net/castro/dosomething.htm) After she left the Castro, she worked at San Francisco's Balboa Theatre (owned by Gary Meyer and discussed in Mick LaSalle's front page article [above]). She curated Seattle's film festival last year. I wonder where she is now? She'd be a swell guest here at the Oasis.

In my best Brandon deWilde voice, "Anita! Come back, Anita!"

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Postby Ann Harding » February 17th, 2008, 3:54 pm

Moraldo Rubini wrote:Ann Harding, I was comforted to see that Paris cinemas are still going strong. I have many movie-going memories of the City of Light. But I'd heard that my old favorite cinema there -- Pagode -- was closed, and that's a tragedy. I hope the building, with its dramatic frescoes has been saved. I wonder if the Grand Rex is still in business? That was one of the theatres with a cloud machine.

Hi Moraldo! Actually, I can reassure you La Pagode has reopened! Its frescoes are under scaffolding, it's in need of major refurbishment, but, the cinema is still running. :)
As for Le Grand Rex, it's also still very much active.
Personaly, I have a few favourite rep cinemas, all in the Latin Quarter: Action Christine, Reflet Médicis, Le Champo, Le Quartier Latin. They are for the moment protected by some laws that prevents the rents from becoming enormous and also by the subsidies given by the city and the state. For how long, God knows...

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Postby Moraldo Rubini » February 17th, 2008, 4:51 pm

Ann Harding wrote:
Moraldo Rubini wrote:Ann Harding, I was comforted to see that Paris cinemas are still going strong. I have many movie-going memories of the City of Light. But I'd heard that my old favorite cinema there -- Pagode -- was closed, and that's a tragedy. I hope the building, with its dramatic frescoes has been saved. I wonder if the Grand Rex is still in business? That was one of the theatres with a cloud machine.

Hi Moraldo! Actually, I can reassure you La Pagode has reopened! Its frescoes are under scaffolding, it's in need of major refurbishment, but, the cinema is still running. :)
As for Le Grand Rex, it's also still very much active.
Personaly, I have a few favourite rep cinemas, all in the Latin Quarter: Action Christine, Reflet Médicis, Le Champo, Le Quartier Latin. They are for the moment protected by some laws that prevents the rents from becoming enormous and also by the subsidies given by the city and the state. For how long, God knows...

Je te remercie, Ann! What great news. You've made my day (twice! See here). La Pagode was [is?] such a beauty with the lovely tea garden in front.
I have fond memories of seeing Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, Drôle de Drame, Hôtel du Nord and so many others in those little houses in the Latin Quarter.
As I recall, the Cinematique was at the Trocadero. You mentioned it was refurbished. Has it moved?

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Postby Ann Harding » February 18th, 2008, 3:20 am

Hi Moraldo! Actually La Cinémathèque moved in 2005 to the east of Paris, in Bercy. It's now housed in the former 'American Centre' built by architect Frank O. Gehry. Here, you'll get more details.
I like the new building better than the former dark and gloomy Trocadero screening room. If ever you come to Paris, try to sample the new screening rooms: they are great! :)


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