Final Cut?

No one wants the Clay Theatre to close, but few are lining up to see movies there either.

As Lindow learned, it is not hard to gather authoritative testimony about the virtues of communal moviegoing — and the endangerment thereof. "What Is Being Lost?" is the title of her first chapter, in which Solnit refers to a "clear-cutting of complexity and local difference," not at all a good thing. "I like to say that home is everything that you can walk to," Solnit says. "I also feel that democracy requires a sense of belonging and a sense of something in common. ... I think the neighborhood theaters have a sense of going to church. You are in public with your community. At the multiplexes, I look around and wonder where the people came from; it is not really my community."

Or, as local film noir maven Eddie Muller puts it, less loftily, in his own essay for Left in the Dark: "Movie houses were, evidently, an essential part of my education, both cinematic and otherwise." Muller's "The Great White Way in Noir City," takes us on the tour, lamenting that so many of its essential stops have since been "abandoned, demolished, or given over to tax-dodging temples or live sex shows."

Although it may at first seem an attractive, mild-mannered coffee-table compendium, Lindow's book is rich with colorful local moviegoing history. That makes sense, as there's plenty of it. So much, actually, that it spills over into Solnit's book, and into Bruno's film — whose opening shot, tellingly, is a view of Fillmore Street from within the Clay Theatre lobby.


R.A. McBride and Julie Lindow commemorate local cinema culture in the book Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters.
Kimberly Sandie
R.A. McBride and Julie Lindow commemorate local cinema culture in the book Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters.

Is now a good time to point out that the Clay has 535 friends on MySpace, but none on Facebook? Apparently, it's not even on Facebook. Maybe the biggest challenge to everyone with a stake in the theater's future is giving up the idea of preserving a culture that no longer really exists.

"The Clay is in the unenviable situation of being a single-screen theater in 2010," Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Most single-screen theaters in 2010 are doomed, if not all of them." And, as Landmark has learned, keeping a theater open for nostalgia's sake just isn't viable. "I love people's memories, and I love that they love to remember the Clay," Mundorff says. "I read the blogs. People love to say that they go to the theater. But the fact is and the numbers tell you that people don't."

Landmark has a policy not to disclose specific box-office figures, but it's safe to assume that the chain wouldn't have given up on the Clay had it been a moneymaker. After the theater's shaky situation became public knowledge, ticket sales improved, but only briefly. "The only weekend that was significantly impacted was the last weekend of August, right after we had announced that we would close," senior regional publicist Steve Indig says, "and I'm sure folks came thinking it was likely their last chance to see a film there." He adds that the Aug. 28 presentation of Rocky Horror, at which the announcement came that the Clay would stay open at least temporarily, "was a full house, also no doubt due to the expected closure." True enough: By that precedent, September's Rocky Horror turnout seemed a lot weaker.

This may explain Jaiswal's apparent reluctance to keep the Clay in its current form — once everybody's anguish over the theater's demise subsides, won't people just revert to not going?

"Keeping it as a theater is not a way for the owner of the property to make money," Kahn says. "It's a way to lose money." It's not that he cares only about the bottom line. It's just that, as he puts it, "If there's going to be a future for the old community film venues in our communities, it's going to require thinking about and responding to different kind of forces than existed when these were first built."

In other words, any viable future for the Clay won't be your neighborhood moviegoing of yore. It'll have to be something else, necessarily a different experience. As Leggat cautioned at the Long Bar rally, "A venue of this size can not be everything to everybody." If the SFFS takes over, for instance, it could become a gilded experience — with the theater as museumlike haven of exotic, festival fare.

As things stand, the Clay needs a new and uniquely qualified operator, and the San Francisco Film Society needs an exhibition venue that can be its base of operations. "The fact that we're 54 years old and still without a home is unconscionable to me," Leggat says. "I wish that my predecessors had felt as strongly about it as we do; we might have one by now." The society's recent efforts to expand to year-round programming have been hampered, he says, by the unruly logistics of working with multiple venues.

But the talks between the SFFS and Jaiswal remain stuck. "Where we stalled ... was on the valuation of the property," Leggat says. "We feel that he's looking at it in 2008 terms and we're looking at it in [current] terms, and the two things are vastly different." Jaiswal, who had spoken to the press only briefly during the early stages of negotiations and encouraged the Clay's friends and neighbors to "e-mail your ideas to: bjasi@savetheclay.com," has since said little, and did not respond to several calls and e-mails seeking comment.

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