Reel World

The Last Picture Show
On July 20, a Sunday night quiet even by San Francisco's somnambulant standards, the Northpoint theater closed. A modern pinnacle of wide-screen exhibition with a huge screen, fabulous sound, and great sight lines, the Cineplex Odeon Cinema Northpoint was an uncommonly inviting throwback to the urban theater-building boom of the '60s. On its last night, a loyal band of 30, including 10 ex-employees, endured the 10 p.m. screening of The Lost World: Jurassic Park to pay their final respects and earn a symbolic Croix de Northpoint.

The 980-seat theater at the corner of Bay and Powell was superbly suited to epic journeys like Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and the rerelease of Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. The English Patient and Liar Liar brought in some crowds over the past year, but Cineplex Odeon didn't have the local muscle to book more hits. The company was creative -- programming a series of vintage 70mm films to fill some gaps as a last, grand play to the theater's strength -- but attendance was dismal.

In the end, the Northpoint's demise had a lot to do with the rise of multiplexes, which offer moviegoers numerous films and multiple show times to compensate for smaller rooms. (Exhibitors -- notably the AMC Kabuki, the Northpoint's archrival -- like the plexes as well, because they can match screens to their pictures' relative popularity.) But Marci Davies, the Toronto-based marketing veep for Cineplex Odeon, has a slightly different take on it: "This one isn't so much a matter of trends and single screens. The lease was up and it didn't make sense to renew. There isn't the foot traffic there to be viable."

Nancy Klasky is vice president of marketing for Century Theaters, a San Francisco-based multiplex chain that steadfastly retains two local single screens, the Cinema 21 and the Presidio, both in the Marina. "I really, honestly feel that in the right location, single-screen theaters can be tremendously profitable," she says. "I'm sad to see a large single-screen theater -- and a beautiful theater with great presentation -- leave San Francisco." Echoes Will Fox, city manager for Landmark Theaters (which runs two single screens in S.F., the Clay and the Bridge), "As an operator of single-screen theaters, whenever a fellow single-screen house goes down it's a big concern and a loss."

In reality, every exhibitor in town knows the score. With a new AMC 14-plex on Van Ness coming next spring, followed quickly by Sony's mammoth 15-screen "Meteon" development in Yerba Buena Gardens, there will be even more pressure on the city's remaining single screens.

In the lobby after the Northpoint's last show, nobody was eager to leave. "It's sad to see these big houses go, because they won't build them like this again," reflected Sheri McGuire, the Northpoint manager for its last five years. When the small crowd finally ventured outside, the dark marquee bore a bleak legend: THEATER CLOSED. The theater died not with a bang or even a whimper, but with the plaintive bleating of fake dinosaurs. The Northpoint deserved better, but then there's never been a shuttered theater that didn't.

By Michael Fox

 
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