Alarming Projections: San Francisco's Strange Lack of Screens

This may be as close as we get to the Levon Helm doc Ain't In It for My Health since it ain't opening here.

In 1969, up-and-comers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas wanted to distance themselves from the existing movie studio system by creating American Zoetrope, their own artist-friendly studio. They decided to found it in a city they considered not only geographically but ideologically distant from Hollywood: San Francisco.

American Zoetrope folded when George Lucas's first feature, THX-1138, flopped hard, and in the decades since, our reputation vis-a-vis Hollywood hasn't changed much. If anything, it's gotten worse. We're not considered a major market like Los Angeles or New York, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the number of movie theaters in the City and County of San Francisco.

Both Cinema Treasures and the Village Voice report that Manhattan has about 215 distinct screens spread out among 43 different theaters, and there are, as of this writing, 89 movies to choose from. Meanwhile, there are 192 distinct screens in 40 theaters in Los Angeles, with 68 movies to choose from. You can guess where this one's going, right? San Francisco boasts a whopping 75 movie screens in 18 theaters. Add to this the fact that both Los Angeles and New York get most major releases and arthouse films a couple weeks before we do, if we get them at all; the Levon Helm documentary Ain't In It For My Health has played New York, and is opening this week in Boulder, Colo., and Concord, N.H., with no dates here. Boulder and Concord are fine cities, but come on. It's enough to give us citywide self-esteem issues.

The mitigating factors are obvious: New York and Los Angeles are bigger, their multiplexes are more multi than ours, the populations are higher, there's better public transportation and/or parking (respectively). Also Internet piracy blah blah blah, except that New York and Los Angeles have access to the same Torrents as we do, yet their theaters aren't shutting down left and right. Indeed, the endlessly fascinating reports that while there have only been 150 movie theaters in San Francisco over the past century, 199 movie theaters have been demolished in New York in that same period, and they still have twice as many open theaters as we do now. We're aware of the whole "City That Never Sleeps" jazz, but that alone can't explain why New York has been able to sustain so many more theaters than us.

San Franciscans aren't too cool for blockbusters, considering the Century 9 opened in 2006 and is hanging in there, but our arthouses are facing extinction. I miss the Red Vic more than I can properly express, and while I was not the biggest fan of the Lumiere experience, maybe if it was still open we'd get to see that Levon Helm documentary.

The hell of it is, the Lumiere closed for the single most banal reason possible: Its lease was up, and the owners couldn't reach an agreement with their landlord. Has any single force caused more damage to San Francisco culture? And is it possible New York's landlords are somehow less venal?

At this rate, our best chance to see Ain't In It For My Health in a theater will be as part of a festival. Every year in San Francisco brings both new festivals and returning favorites, and thank goodness for them all. Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral played in this year's SF Indiefest, but passed us by in its theatrical run, which goes to show how dire things have gotten: We're not getting Cronenberg films. (Sure, it's David Cronenberg's son, but that doesn't make it sting any less.) San Francisco also has a thriving microcinema scene, thanks to the Artist's Television Access, the Vortex Room, and Oddball Films.

But in the long run, San Francisco has fallen far behind in the film exhibition race. All we can do for now is to keep supporting what theaters we have left, and keep our fingers crossed that the Alamo Drafthouse's plans to reopen the New Mission Theater come to fruition.

As for the long-since resurrected American Zoetrope, in addition to that swell restaurant in the green building in North Beach, they're currently producing movies by the Coppola clan and others. Next on the roster is Jeepers Creepers 3: Cathedral, which will probably play in San Francisco whether we want it to or not.

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215 screens in NYC is about 1 for every 38400 people. Los Angeles's 192 screen is one fore every 19,900 people. San Francisco's 75 screens is one for every 10900 people. So, per capita, SF has nearly FOUR TIMES as many movie screens as NYC.


Grammar Alert! "New York has been able to sustain so many more theaters than us."

should read "sustain more theaters than we have."

(If there's one thing we can keep from disappearing is correct grammar. I'll never stop correcting until the day I die. Obnoxious as it is. Please forgive me...)

great article, I had no idea SF lagged behind other cities. so sad. thank god for the VORTEX.


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