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.

At the Sundance Film Festival later this month, most industry types will watch a couple of movies, take some meetings, and attend many, many parties. Not Bill Banning. This year, just like every other year, he will watch about 55 films and see very little daylight, even though the Roxie hasn't screened or distributed a Sundance picture in years.

It's oddly fitting that 9/11, which Banning calls the most traumatic experience of his life, took place while he was attending a film festival. He stood in front of the concession stands at Toronto's Varsity Theatre with a group of other Americans, eyes glued to the television images of one burning tower and the other up in smoke. In a time of intense emotional pain -- he cried every day for two weeks afterward -- Banning dealt with the situation the only way he knew how. "What am I gonna do?" he thought. "See a movie." He attended three screenings before the festival's organizers shut it down for a day.

People like Banning, for whom the movie theater is a kind of church and its films both Scripture and priest, are now in the minority. There are other great neighborhood theaters in San Francisco, but for those who love watching independent films on the big screen, the Roxie is sacred ground, worth keeping open no matter the cost.

The Roxie will undergo major remodeling before its grand 
reopening in April.
James Sanders
The Roxie will undergo major remodeling before its grand reopening in April.
The upstairs projectionist's room in the main theater used to 
be the Roxie's office.
James Sanders
The upstairs projectionist's room in the main theater used to be the Roxie's office.

San Francisco has a bevy of cultural institutions that wouldn't survive on ticket sales alone: the de Young Museum, the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera. The Roxie's success rests on its new owners' ability to convince donors that the theater is valuable in the same way: worthy of money to keep it alive, despite the small number of people who care enough to patronize it. The sad truth is that museums, symphonies, and operas are not seen by the man on the street as a fun way to spend an afternoon. The organizations that fund mainstream, highbrow arts institutions possess cultural heft, but they're viewed as supporters of educational, boring, even "dead" art forms.

If the Roxie lives on as a fund-seeking nonprofit, it will be one of many signals that the risk-taking, independent art-house theater may be dying as well, morphing from fringe culture into just, simply, culture.

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