Behind the Scenes

2261 Fillmore (at Clay)
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: none

"Looks like the inside of a little girl's jewelry box," said a friend as we left, and it does somewhat, with velvety-looking bright-red walls and silver trim. The Landmark art house, with 450 seats, was formerly part of Mel Novikoff's Surf Theaters chain. It has a cool and collected staff, even during pre-film rush. Lobby table features self-serve pitchers of ice water, an attractive complement to tubs of salty popcorn. On the downside, the women's bathrooms have only two stalls, leading to large pre- and post-film lines.

200 Colma
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: free

No one, not even the manager, seems to know the official name of this United Artist sixplex: It's either the Colma or the Metro or the Metro Center. Whatever. Opened in 1986, it's in Colma, right next to the Serramonte 6 -- a large, modern complex, with good-size theaters (four at 460 seats, two at about 250), nice screens, and big sound. It has a spacious lobby and everything, bathrooms included, is very clean. It doesn't have a lot of personality, but it's comfortable.

3575 Geary (at Arguello)
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors,
$4.50 matinee
Parking: limited

Thanks to a 1993 refurbishing, the Coronet is the one relatively untarnished local jewel in the dingy crown of United Artists. The Coronet was originally part of a neighborhood theater chain owned by Bud Levin, who went on to found the S.F. Film Festival (the others included the Alexandria, the Balboa, and the Metro). But with the exception of the Balboa these all eventually were taken over by United Artists. UA, contrary to popular impression, has nothing to do with the film studio of the same name. The company was sold to the conglomerate TCI in the mid-'80s and is now based outside of Denver. Long before that, however, deep-set decay -- not to mention a lockout of the projectionists' union in the late 1970s -- made UA a name synonymous with the cinema of mediocrity.

The Coronet's snazzier marquee and jazzier carpeting are its most visible upgrades. (The bathrooms are still as inviting as reform school lavatories.) The upgrade, however, does keep the Coronet booking the highest-profile films -- Twister, Independence Day, and Sleepers in 1996. Inside the auditorium, sightlines are excellent and the screen is large enough to make an impact even on the comfy loge seats in the theater's back half. The sound quality is terrific, if you can handle the volume, always two notches above the comfort level for any normal human being. Our ears still haven't recovered from a Batman preview in 1989. Parking is difficult unless you arrive early at the adjacent lot.

Dolby Laboratories screening room
100 Potrero

What is probably the most technically perfect theater in the city isn't open to the public. Opened in 1989, the Dolby screening room can seat up to 100 people for beyond state-of-the-art screenings and sound analysis. The room boasts Dolby's new CP-500 processors and at any given time an array of up-and-coming speaker configurations. Local journalists get to check it out once in a while; it's Disney's preferred site for press screenings.

2966 College (at Ashby), Berkeley
(510) 869-3999
Admission: $7, $4 seniors/kids, $4 matinee
Parking: none

At one time a hysterically bad United Artists outfit -- we once saw a CinemaScope-size print of Blue Velvet projected onto a normal-size screen -- the Elmwood was gutted by fire in the late 1980s. It was duplexed and is now run as a second-string art house by Pacific Theaters of L.A.

Embarcadero Center
1 Embarcadero Center
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: free evenings and weekends
with validation

This fiveplex, opened in July 1995, was the first S.F. theater built in a decade and has been an enormous success for the Landmark Theater chain. Landmark began with partners Gary Meyer, Steve Gilula, and Kim Jorgenson; their first theater was Berkeley's UC. In time, the company had a total of about 50 screens in several states and was the largest chain of art theaters in the United States. Landmark was sold to the Goldwyn company in 1991; with Goldwyn's backing, the company landed atop the great art-house consolidation in San Francisco, and Landmark came to dominate the Bay Area art-house scene like no other company. Landmark now has the Embarcadero, the Opera Plaza, the Clay, the Lumiere, and the Bridge in the city; the UC, the Act One/Two, the Shattuck, the California, the Piedmont, and the Albany in the East Bay; and another handful on the Peninsula, for a total of about 40 screens. (It has 138 nationally.) Jorgenson left the company years ago; Meyer announced last month that he was leaving Landmark for good; Gilula remains president.

The Embarcadero, opened last August, is an unusual all-art multiplex that has against the odds kept a strong movie presence downtown. The location's two main rooms (Theaters 1 and 2, each with about 300 seats) are wonderful places to see a movie: large, dominating screens, good seats, and good projection. The three other rooms are smaller (around 150 seats each), but they're nicely proportioned and have big screens. The place also has free parking, a classy concession stand, and a good staff. Here's an example: We swung by the theater early on a recent weekend to buy tickets for a later show. We then went out to dinner; but of course everything took too long and we ended up blowing off the movie. We went back by the theater late on the off chance we could cash in our unused tickets. The place was closed, but an employee who was leaving took the time to find the manager, who apologized for not being able to offer a refund, and cheerfully coughed up passes for a future visit.

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