Reel World

A '98 prediction you can bet your IRA on: When the AMC and Sony movie complexes open in the fall, increasing the city's screens by nearly 30, multiplex madness will infect San Francisco moviegoers and media outlets. It's already happening -- KRON's Jan Wahl visited a slew of construction sites (and existing theaters) for a series of 5 p.m. reports last month while the obedient Chronicle, ever mindful of future advertising, recently accompanied its slender overview with a large pastel artist-rendering of the 15-screen Yerba Buena Metreon project supplied by Sony. Lost in the cheerleading, however, is the future of the city's endangered single-screen theaters. Rumors abound that Polk Street's Alhambra and Royal will soon join the Gateway and Northpoint in Ghostville.

Blumenfeld Theaters (which also runs the two Regency screens and the Castro) has leased the venues from the Nasser family since 1973, but the current contracts expire this spring. Along with their various charms, the Royal and Alhambra sport zero parking, large overheads, and dubious booking strategies. The architecturally superb Alhambra, designed by Timothy J. Pflueger, is the S.F. home for low-protein Disney films (a legacy of Mickey and Donald's contribution to the theater's stellar 1988 renovation), while the run-down Royal often screens the same flicks as the spiffier AMC Kabuki.

The Blumenfelds didn't return calls, and Theodore D. Nasser, president of Consolidated Theaters Inc., the family-run corporation that's owned the Alhambra and Royal for three generations, wouldn't reveal any details. "Maybe there'll be more to say down the road," he allowed. One possibility is a six-month renewal with the Blumenfelds: "When you know someone for years and years," Nasser said, "you don't need to have as long a lease as you would with a total stranger." This scenario would keep the theaters open until the multiplexes arrive, increasing the city's screens by nearly 50 percent and triggering a full-scale, citywide shakeout. As for those strangers, Nasser said they include "other theatrically related entities" who've inquired about leasing one or both houses as movie theaters or live stages. If the Blumenfelds simply walk away in the next month or two and the other queries turn to smoke, the Nassers could conceivably convert the Royal into a shopping mall (with entrances on both Polk and California). "We're studying a number of alternatives, just to be ready," Nasser said.

Big House, U.S.A.
The Blumenfelds had to be cheered that the beloved (and profitable) Castro (also designed by Pflueger, and also leased from the Nassers) was tabbed as the California site for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry tour. (The nine-day, 32-film series begins today; my esteemed colleague Michael Sragow will introduce The Treasure of Sierra Madre on Friday.) Now at its midpoint, the tour of "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant films" encamps at but one theater in each state to plead the cause of film preservation. "We need to plant a seed and move on," explains the tour's coordinator, Feliza Kazen. "We need fertile ground for people to actively participate." Hence, despite a blizzard of demands from L.A. organizations, the tour settled on the Castro, the premier theater in cinema-savvy San Francisco. Says Kazen: "We want to show these films the way they were meant to be seen -- in cinema palaces on a large single screen."

By Michael Fox

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