By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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In an industry that's being battered, in a town where nearly every independent theater is struggling financially, the Roxie has become famous for being in especially poor financial shape. Its greatest strength and obvious flaw is that it takes risks on films most local cinemas won't show, sometimes screening movies by directors who have yet to find a distributor. In the best case, Banning and Roxie Releasing President Rick Norris will distribute an otherwise overlooked film nationwide, returning hundreds of thousands to the cash-strapped theater. In the worst case, the Chronicle doesn't review a film, no one shows up, and the theater hemorrhages money for a weeklong run -- a situation only compounded when Norris and Banning are also distributing the film at an additional risk of thousands of dollars.
Since the Roxie became a repertory house in the mid-'70s, the theater has rarely prospered. During Banning's tenure, which began in 1984, the theater has teetered financially, facing monetary crises of increasing severity every few years. Roxie Releasing has always saved the day with a distribution hit, such as 1987's Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh and 1994's Red Rock West. The distribution arm has come up dry since the successful release of Rivers and Tides, a documentary about environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, in 2002. "We distributed a lot of films that clearly were never going to make money," says Banning, "but, hey, they were great films."
The theater has since limped along, helped now and again by an influx of cash. Banning and former programmer Elliot Lavine organized a "Save the Roxie" benefit gala in 2002, raising tens of thousands from Roxie fans and local celebs such as The Right Stuff director Philip Kaufman and Roko Belic, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Genghis Blues, first distributed by the Roxie. That same year, the theater received a grant from the city for $113,000 to remodel part of its office space into the Little Roxie. Nevertheless, the debts continued to pile up. Despite a roughly $500,000 operating budget, the Roxie hasn't had more than $10,000 in the bank for years.
The various entities associated with the theater -- Banning, Roxie Cinema, and Daybreak Cinemas Inc. (the formal name of the corporation that owns the Roxie) -- are five years behind on taxes, with at least $70,000 due to the IRS and the state of California, according to federal and state tax records. Last May, Banning told the Chroniclehe owed $140,000 to various creditors. Now that number has jumped beyond $200,000, although new Roxie Executive Director Bess says they're hoping to negotiate down some of the larger debts. By last spring, it had become obvious that Banning would need to declare bankruptcy, sell the Roxie business, or both. Then the buyers started showing up on his doorstep.
In 1988, the summer after Allyce Bess finished fourth grade, her parents took her to the Roxie to see Vincent. As Bess was growing up in Oakland and on the Peninsula, her family saw many movies at the theater, but Vincentwas her favorite. She thought about it for months afterward, enthralled with the idea of madness, and even tried her hand at painting. It helped spark a passionate love affair with film. Eventually, watching movies became the thing Allyce Bess did with almost all her free time.
Last May, Bess read in the Chronicle that the Roxie was about to go under. It felt more like an obituary than a business story. Then she hatched the kind of idea that few other 27-year-olds actually would have acted on: Wouldn't it be great to buy the theater and turn it around?
"I wanted to be the manager and wanted to learn about film with Bill," says Bess, just as excited now, after five months of unpaid work at the Roxie, as she was at the outset. "I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it."
Bess had neither a film degree nor management experience. She'd gone straight from Sarah Lawrence College to journalism graduate school at UC Berkeley. Four years as a business reporter hadn't taught her how to run any kind of business, much less a struggling arts nonprofit with a half-million-dollar operating budget. She did, however, have something beyond a devotion to the Roxie and boundless enthusiasm for film: access to big money. Through "connections from prep school," Bess secured a $200,000 commitment from a wealthy, anonymous Peninsula family. If the Roxie went nonprofit with Bess as executive director, their money would erase the theater's debts.
Bess was one of dozens of suitors who'd come calling at the Roxie over the years, many of whom advised Banning to take the business nonprofit. He had always turned them down, afraid that a new owner, or a nonprofit board, might wrest control from him, changing the kind of movies that played at the theater. "We had a plan to extricate him from his problems," says Ron Merk, one potential Roxie buyer and a film producer and distributor for four decades. "But it meant Bill would have to walk away from the theater. That's the real issue for Bill. He's very much immersed in the Roxie image, and the Roxie image is very much immersed in Bill."