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Coming soon: The New Roxie 

What happens when an artsy film guy who has gone way into debt hooks up with a school that doesn't know how to run a nonprofit theater? We hope it has a happy ending.

Wednesday, Jan 11 2006
Bill Banning's hair reaches up and out, like a wave breaking over his forehead. The crest of the tuft is so high, and the ceiling so low, that the two would almost meet, if Banning weren't ducking down as he walks across the projection room. Once the office and nerve center of the Roxie Cinema, it's now a decaying chronicle of more than a quarter-century of local film history.

Nearly every horizontal surface looks like a carpenter's workbench, piled with odd wrenches, pliers, glues, bolts, and bottles of chemical film treatments. The room is dim, lit mostly by ceiling bulbs, with duct-taped, upside-down popcorn buckets acting as lampshades. The walls are a collage of yellowed press clippings, photos of smiling staff and theatergoers, and fliers and posters advertising films screened at the Roxie years ago. They're souvenirs from better days, when Banning didn't wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m., feeling like he's about to take a final exam, dreading the prospect of dealing with the creditors he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each item in the room triggers a memory from his long, complex, love-hate relationship with the Roxie. It's the place where he's spent most of his adult life, the place that's made him a San Francisco arts icon, the place that has, as the best movies often do, absorbed Banning into its reality.

Human-size, aging film projectors dominate the space, sturdy as steam engines, with golden knobs and glass-bubbled gauges and bronze-colored carbon tubes awaiting the chance to become torches of light, projecting images onto a movie screen. Banning speaks about them with a reverence other men might reserve for automobiles or baseball arcana. "This is the Rolls-Royce of 16-millimeter projectors, the Eastman 25," he says, pointing to a pale blue machine that must have seemed futuristic when it was designed 50 years ago. Like the Roxie itself, the projectors are well past their prime, repudiating their impending death in a charming sort of rebellion.

Over three decades, the Roxie has become a mythical institution within the San Francisco film scene, screening artistic, risk-taking movies that most local theaters wouldn't. Banning is lionized by local media as the hard-fighting and enduring champion of independent film battling corporatized, faux art-house chains such as Landmark Theatres. The Roxie's mounting debt is portrayed as a badge of honor, not an embarrassment, neglecting the true stories of dozens of struggling independent filmmakers and distributors who count themselves among the theater's horde of angry creditors.

In a last-ditch attempt to save his beloved institution, Banning finally gave up managerial control in December. New College of California absorbed the theater into its nonprofit charter, with ex-San Francisco Business Times reporter Allyce Bess becoming executive director. These inexperienced new owners must persuade irate distributors and filmmakers who have been burned by Banning to screen there again. They'll also have to confront economic changes threatening the very existence of independent art-house theaters, and learn from scratch how to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for an organization with a shoddy financial past.

Banning sees the plan as the panacea that will keep the Roxie alive. Unfortunately, this picture isn't guaranteed to have a happy ending.

Last September, the Found Footage Festival played the Roxie, exposing the audience to a treasure trove of ridiculous clips from horror movie-like corporate training tapes and videos such as Michael Bolton's Winning Softball. The traveling "festival" is actually a DVD compilation of footage collected by Long Island City, Queens, comedy writers Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett, who also provide live, running comedic commentary.

In an arrangement called a "fourwall," Pickett and Prueher shelled out $3,500 to rent the Roxie for two nights, assuming all financial risk. Any ticket sales above the rental fee would be theirs to keep, but if no one showed up, they'd forfeit the upfront money to the Roxie. Other San Francisco theaters offered Found Footage better deals, but Prueher had heard of the Roxie's reputation for screening risky fare and was excited about its Mission neighborhood backdrop. Because the Roxie had no promotional budget, Pickett and Prueher did their own publicity, and even persuaded the Chronicle to run an article about the festival. Found Footage filled the theater almost to capacity at two Friday night shows, and played to sellout crowds twice on Saturday.

Before Prueher left Saturday night, the concessionaires told him Found Footage had earned $2,500 beyond the rental fee, and that he could pick up a check at the Roxie the next day. On Sunday afternoon, before a show in Oakland, Prueher called the theater. The woman who answered the phone said he shouldn't come that day. Banning was scheduled to return from a trip but was still out of town. When Prueher and Pickett finally reached him at home that night, Banning said they'd get their money soon.

Three weeks later, Prueher finally received a check for $2,260. It bounced. He called to ask for a new check, with an additional $10 to cover the bounce fee. Another check, this time for $1,000, arrived in late October. It bounced, too. Prueher kept calling, always receiving a polite response but no actual money. In mid-December, the woman who answered the phone said the theater was lobbying for nonprofit status and trying to get money from a college to cover its debts.

Found Footage has been Prueher and Pickett's main source of income since they quit their day jobs to work on a documentary film project about a lewd country singer. Instead of making money from the Roxie engagement, they had apparently provided the theater with a no-interest loan. Banning says both bounced checks were the result of optimistic "miscalculations" about revenue at the Roxie in the weeks after the checks were sent.

Prueher says he'd play the Roxie again if it actually paid up, but he doesn't feel sorry for Banning. "While I sympathize that they're an institution that chooses edgier fare, it's difficult for two of us, being the artists who did the show, to say, 'All right, we're going to give you this loan while we starve. We'll worry about rent, you guys keep trying for that nonprofit status.'"

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Ryan Blitstein


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