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.

While they may be a source of guilt, Banning's personal relationships are vital to the Roxie's future, because most of the people he owes money to still love him as much as they love his theater. He has yet to pay distributor Women Make Movies $2,733.15 for the 1999 release of Divorce Iranian Style. Its executive director, Debbie Zimmerman, says the theater "holds a warm place in my heart," and she'd work with the Roxie again if paid in full.

Not everyone will be so forgiving. Some distributors say they'll only screen at the Roxie again if the theater provides an upfront guarantee of, say, $5,000, before even shipping a print.

"It's incredibly important to have their good will back," says Allyce Bess, the new Roxie executive director. "In some cases we may not get it. I understand how angry they are. I would be, too."

As the new owners try to persuade distributors and filmmakers to return their movies to the Roxie screen, they face an even more difficult problem: finding people to buy tickets to see those films.

It's Saturday night at the Roxie, the opening weekend of Aristide and the Endless Revolution, a documentary that accuses the U.S. and France of orchestrating the removal of the Haitian ex-president via coup d'état.

Neon lights illuminate the faded, badly peeling red and white paint and rusty metal of the marquee. By comparison, the theater interior seems almost modern, even with Spanish revival-style balconies on either side of the screen.

The blue hanging lamps dim. The video projector in the rear shines a sideways pyramid of light at the screen, and the movie begins.

Just six of the theater's 275 seats are filled.

There are two immediate reasons for such poor attendance: The Roxie can't afford to advertise its films or even to print a monthly calendar, and the San Francisco Chronicledidn't review Aristide.

"The Chronis 80 percent of your game," Banning says. "I've always thought that and really never had any reason to think differently."

Banning admits, though, that his problems run far deeper than the local daily not reviewing the film. Across America, market consolidation, technology, and the choices made by moviegoers themselves are squeezing profits from the entire independent theater business, to the point where its very viability may soon be called into question.

The major threat to the Roxie, of course, is that it's now possible to replicate the theater experience, in the privacy of your home, for just a few thousand dollars. Of the 113 million households in the U.S., 91 million own a DVD player, and about the same number subscribe to a cable television or satellite service. Last year, the average household bought 12 DVDs and rented 26, according to research and consulting firm Adams Media Research.

Lounging on the couch in front of a television may fail to capture the all-encompassing sights and sounds of a modern widescreen, digital-sound theater, but it's not all that different from seeing a movie at an art house. Rental services that ship unlimited DVDs to your home for less than $20 per month further sap motivation to visit the theater, especially as the window between theatrical and DVD release dates shrinks. At $8 for a single film, the Roxie offers a sense of community and nostalgia, but with less comfortable seats and a frustrating hunt for parking.

Fewer people than ever before are willing to pay that premium. The average American household bought 69 movie theater tickets during 1951. By the 1970s, that figure had plummeted to barely one ticket per month, about the same as in recent years. More than 12 percent of Bay Area households now subscribe to Netflix, the most prominent of a host of online DVD rental companies with thousands of independent films in stock.

Time and money once devoted to movie theaters now go toward playing videogames, downloading music to an iPod, or watching Internet video clips. "People have less and less time to get off their butts and less and less motivation to spend 20 bucks at a theater," says Jan Saxton, vice president of Adams Media.

When they do go to the movies, Americans are much less likely to visit small theaters playing indie films. Between 2001 and 2004, the percentage of theaters with a single screen dropped from 36 percent to 27 percent. (In mid-2003, Banning added the 50-seat Little Roxie, which shows only video, two doors down.) The top 10 American theater owners operate over 20,000 screens, more than half the screens nationwide, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Even in the independent film world, chains threaten small theaters such as the Roxie. Landmark, the largest national art-house chain and owner of the Embarcadero and the Clay, among others, uses its market dominance to keep films playing exclusively at its own theaters for the first several weeks of release.

"I am living with my own Landmark policies," says Gary Meyer, the owner of the independent Balboa Theater, who founded (and later sold) Landmark. When a film opens at the Embarcadero, it won't run at the Balboa until weeks later, after it's already playing at Landmark's second-tier Opera Plaza.

Chains like Landmark (which did not return several calls for comment) are one reason only a handful of San Francisco's neighborhood theaters, which once numbered as many as 100, survive. Those few still operating are now taking drastic steps to cut costs and make up for lost revenues. Last month, the Red Vic Movie House persuaded Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to introduce an ordinance allowing the theater to sell beer and wine.

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