Gone With the Wind
As reported here last week, two multiplexes totaling 29 screens are now under construction in San Francisco. AMC is leveraging its Kabuki-built reputation with a 14-screen house at Van Ness and O'Farrell opening spring 1998, while Sony makes its first foray into Northern California in the fall of '98 with a 15-plex (plus 3-D IMAX) at Yerba Buena Gardens. Even more are in the works. The $64,000 question ($7.50 on weeknights) is, "Is it High Noon for the city's single-screen theaters?"
No one I spoke to is humming "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," at least not in public. The consensus is that no changes are in store for 1997, unless the financially troubled UA chain sells off some of its single-screen houses, like the Metro or the Vogue. Exhibitors say they'll be unaffected when the twin tyrannosauruses arrive in 1998.
"The people of the city of San Francisco have a certain affinity for single-screen jewel theaters," declares Century Theaters Marketing Vice President Nancy Klasky, referring specifically to the Cinema 21 and the Presidio, her company's two Chestnut Street houses. "The neighborhood itself could support those theaters. It comes down to who delivers the highest grosses, and those theaters are extaordinarily strong and gross extraordinarily well. This company," she concludes, "is not in any way concerned about the new multiplexes coming into town."
Yet even Klasky acknowledges that San Francisco's long-standing "day-and-date" tradition is doomed. ("Day-and-date" is how the industry refers to opening movies exclusively at one theater.) Before, customers went to a neighborhood theater because it was often the only place to see a particular movie. Now those theaters will sometimes have to share bookings with fancy plexes with free parking, and that will hurt business. For example: Ticket sales for The English Patient at Cineplex Odeon's Northpoint were dramatically affected by the Kabuki's parallel engagement.
Speaking of art films, Landmark, the chain that runs most of the city's art houses, isn't blinking. Area Manager Will Fox reports that the chain has inked long-term leases extending beyond the millennium at all its S.F. houses, including the Clay and the Lumiere. What if the multiplexes develop a taste for art? Fox scoffs: "In my experience, the multiplexes have always talked about a desire to go after foreign films and give them screens. I've never seen it happen."
Down at the Roxie, Bill Banning muses, "I don't see the multiplexes encroaching on our turf, because we keep redefining our turf -- as what nobody else is doing." Banning vows that this will be the year the Roxie itself plexes, converting its office into a plush 50-seat screening room to extend main-theater hits.
The Red Vic also feels pretty secure in its niche, says collective member Dennis Conroy. "If first-run houses like the Royal or the Clay became [repertory] calendar houses -- which I have a hard time believing would happen -- it would affect us. But no one else is going to play Harold and Maude," Conroy chuckles, citing one of the rep house's perennial winners.
So right now there's no smell of panic in the air. "San Francisco is an 'A' market for studios because of the grosses," Century's Klasky explains. "If any city can handle the expansion, San Francisco can."