The Miracle Worker

Our intrepid columist helps save the Presidio Theater from oblivion

Back on March 20, we reported that Gorilla Sports had abandoned its proposal to expand its sweatbox Shangri-La into the Presidio Theater space. This followed the news that the current tenant, Century Theatres, will vacate the venerable Marina movie house when its lease expires next year. The landlord, Bianchi Joint Venture, had sought out other businesses, since no exhibitor in town had expressed interest in running the Presidio as a theater. No one, that is, until Frank Lee of the Four Star stepped up. "I have to thank you," Lee tells Reel World, making us blush. "I read in your column that the deal fell through with Gorilla Sports, and that the Bianchi people were looking for a new partner."

Lee's lease of the 600-seat theater begins next October and runs through 2035. That's a hell of an optimistic business decision, given the struggles of single-screen theaters in the modern world. "I think the location of the theater is a plus," Lee says. "We don't have a multiplex right next to us, like happened with the Regency, the Alhambra, and the Royal." Lee is counting on attracting moviegoers from beyond the neighborhood, betting that exclusive bookings will offset the hassle of Marina parking. While continuing to screen a selection of Hollywood films for the neighborhood yuppies, he'll also host themed festivals and show premieres of Asian films. That is, Lee will bring in elements of the formula he's successfully implemented at the Four Star over the last decade. "We independents can do a lot with a niche market and niche films," he asserts. "If we're the only game in town showing that particular film, the audience has to make an effort to look for a [parking] space."

Lee tables the question of whether he might divide the Presidio into two screens at some future date -- an expensive proposition in itself. Instead, he gently reminds us, "I think this is the first single-screen theater that has been saved in the city."

Play It Cool The evolution of local movie theaters is obviously a reflection of the ways that San Francisco has changed over time, a thesis that Mission District filmmaker Christian Bruno explores in the ambitious historical documentary that he figures to complete in a year or so. Separately, he's discovered a weird subcategory of films: silent 8mm digest versions of Hollywood flicks, running five to nine minutes in length. "Apparently they were intended for home movie shows," Bruno explains, imagining Dad sandwiching the condensed I Was a Teenage Werewolf between footage of him building a treehouse and Sis' fashion show. "There's a whole thesis waiting to be written here."

Bruno and sound collagist Charles Kremenak chose four such digests -- The French Connection, the Japanese monster movie Rodan, the obscure John Wayne pirate movie Wake of the Red Witch, and Werewolf -- and devised musical accompaniment, complete with prerecorded and processed sounds. "What's nice is these films have no gravity in and of themselves, unlike Nosferatu or Metropolis," Bruno says. "No one holds these films in high esteem in that way, so we have freedom to do want we want. There are a lot of purists out there who criticize [contemporary silent-film composers/ accompanists] Club Foot Orchestra or the Alloy Orchestra for not being time-period true: 'You can't play modern music to these old films.'"

"Epic [Abridged]," with Bruno, Kremenak, and a slew of musicians supplying the notes, screens Nov. 1 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of the vast "Bay Area Now 3" show. Natalija Vekic's The Girl With the Pearl Suspended, the second in her trilogy of silent films, opens the program.

Star Wars Sean Penn's critical open letter to George W. Bush in the form of a large ad in last Friday's Washington Post may not stop a U.S. invasion of Iraq, but it did take people's minds off Winona's trial for a nanosecond. Perhaps she sent a thank-you note, unless she was too busy commiserating with another local movie star having a bad week, Benjamin Bratt of the widely panned Abandon.

 
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