The sleeping giant of the Bay Area exhibition scene, United Artists Theater Circuit, is stirring. With other strong chains making inroads in San Francisco -- AMC is adding a snazzy 14-screen leviathan on Van Ness in the spring and Sony bursts into town next fall with a 15-screen megaplex at Yerba Buena Gardens -- UA is finally defending its turf.
While scorned by film buffs for its casual presentations, decaying screens, and make-a-buck attitude, UA is a major player in the Bay Area, with 18 screens in San Francisco alone. Its biggest move (pending approval by city planners Sept. 25) is a 16-screen, 3,500-seat plex at Stonestown to replace the two screens there now. The Stonestown behemoth, set to open mid to late next year, will conclude an unprecedented burst of development that will increase the number of S.F. movie screens by two-thirds.
Historically, UA doesn't talk much to the press. But the Denver-based company's chief operating officer, Kurt Hall, gave us a few minutes recently. The new theater will have tiered (so-called "stadium") seating and wall-to-wall screens, the standard luxury accouterments of late-'90s theater construction. (The Jack London Theaters in Oakland are the only current local examples.) Hall also noted another major undertaking, a complete renovation of the shabby Metro on Union Street. Plans call for an expanded lobby, complete handicapped access, and a full technical makeover -- essentially the same radical surgery the chain prescribed for its flagship theater, the Coronet on Geary, in 1993.
More intriguing is the UA's wait-and-see attitude toward the four-screen Galaxy (considered a state-of-the-art pleasure den on its opening 13 years ago) and the crummily plexed Alexandria, in the Richmond. Hall maintained that the theaters are part of UA's long-term strategy, but specifics haven't been nailed down. "We picked the ones we could do the quickest and which needed the help the soonest," he said. The Galaxy in particular may take a serious hit from the AMC Van Ness, just two blocks away. "It is vulnerable," Hall conceded, "but it is in a very, very good location. I also think the AMC Van Ness will compete more against the Kabuki than against our theater." The often-overlooked Vogue, tucked away at Presidio and Sacramento, didn't come up during our conversation; but Hall did say, "San Francisco is one of our key markets, and we have absolutely no plans to sell any of our theaters."
Meanwhile, no one -- Reel World included -- noticed that United Artists introduced the dreaded $8 movie ticket to town earlier this summer. Hall expressed surprise that the chain's new prime-time ticket price leads all Bay Area theaters. "Generally, we're more of a follower in raising ticket prices," he declared. The fact is, however, that the Coronet, Metro, Galaxy, Alexandria, and Stonestown have the priciest tix in town. By contrast, the AMC, Century (which operates the Presidio and Cinema 21 in the Marina), and Landmark art houses all top out at $7.50. None of those chains intend to raise their prices in the immediate future. But don't be surprised if the $8 ticket washes across the city with the new wave of multiplexes next year.