It was the groundbreaking for the most portentous development in San Francisco entertainment since Planet Hollywood transformed Union Square into a mecca for TV-generation tourists. In mid-November, Burnham Properties and American Multi-Cinema Inc. began construction on the AMC 1000 Van Ness 14 Theaters, destined to become the city's largest multiplex -- at least for a few months -- when it opens in spring 1998. The site: the Don Lee Cadillac building at Van Ness and O'Farrell, soon to boast 50 condominiums, a pair of restaurants, and a health club besides the screens.
The crowd facing the podium that bright day couldn't miss the block-letter placard declaring, "This Is A Drug & Alcohol Free Jobsite," although their view was carefully turned away from the Mitchell Brothers' theater across the street. "Without your ideas," Mayor Willie Brown applauded the builders, "five or six years hence we in the community would still be trying to figure out what to do in this space." It's an odd thing for a mayor to damn his own administration's lack of vision, but he's right about the developers' ambition and persistence.
The AMC Van Ness, you see, is merely first out of the box in a mammoth multiplex invasion that's about to shake up the local theater scene. Sony began construction shortly afterward on a complex at Mission and Third streets in Yerba Buena Center; projected to open in October 1998, that site will boast 15 screens plus a 3-D IMAX.
Those two projects will boost S.F.'s movie-screen count by almost 50 percent. But wait, there's more. AMC has also signed a letter of intent to build an eight- to 10-screen house just down the road from the Kabuki in the so-called "Jazz District" entertainment complex scheduled to open in late 1998. The Catellus "destination entertainment retail" venture proposed for Mission Bay, kitty-corner from the new Giants ballpark, is also expected to feature a multiplex. Finally, there's talk that Bloomingdale's will include a couple of movie theaters in its massive overhaul of the former Emporium on Market Street.
The industry consensus for years has been that San Francisco is underscreened. The Bay Area has fewer screens than any other city in the top 10 filmgoing markets, yet typically ranks fifth in the country in market share. This is a great movie town, the industry agrees; can you imagine what ticket sales would be like if only there were more theaters?
The chains hope that new theaters with nifty touches will become instant destinations. The new AMC Van Ness, for example, will hold 3,177 film fans in a couple of 400-seat theaters and 12 smaller-capacity rooms of about 200 each. On paper that's not much different from the seven smaller houses at the 2,100-seat AMC Kabuki 8 (the 700-seat auditorium is in a separate class). But the "small" Van Ness theaters will be big rooms with broad screens, and what the industry calls "stadium-style seating": The row-to-row rise will be 18 inches, with 46 inches between rows, about six inches beyond the current industry standard..
AMC Senior Vice President Dick Walsh believes his new complex will expand, not cannibalize, San Francisco's movie audience. "Pictures are not able to hold in town long enough" because of a lack of screens, he asserts. "Despite the great [box-office] numbers coming out of San Francisco, it's still not meeting the demand for art films." AMC has made plenty of friends at the Kabuki, and has its supporters: Peter Scarlet, artistic director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, says he'll offer programs at both AMC plexes in 1998. But some in the local theater scene argue that the new multiplexes are a threat to San Francisco's remaining single-screen neighborhood theaters, with the Northpoint, the Royal, and the Vogue particularly vulnerable. How will they respond? Tune in next week.
By Michael Fox
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