Castro Theatre daily film screenings a thing of the past, management says

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday March 16, 2023
Share this Post:
Castro Theatre management company Another Planet Entertainment has said that films will be part of the programming, but one-third of the time. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
Castro Theatre management company Another Planet Entertainment has said that films will be part of the programming, but one-third of the time. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

One of the many criticisms of Castro Theatre management company Another Planet Entertainment is that the movie palace has been dark a good portion of the time since it took over last year and that likely will continue, officials said.

What once were daily movie showings at the theater gave way to its closure when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. Then, in January 2022, APE announced it was taking over management of the theater. APE's clunky rollout upset many movie buffs and others in the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. Tensions have not eased as crucial city hearings loom.

With APE seeking city approval on its proposed renovations, it recently issued a community benefits package that reveals films will be shown about one-third of the time.

"Daily film screenings are not going to happen again" at the site, David Perry, a gay man and APE spokesperson told the Bay Area Reporter. "That's a fact. Will there be a robust film schedule? Yes."

"No one wants to program the theater more fully than Another Planet," Perry continued. "It takes a while to schedule events. There's no way to compare what happened in 2019 before the pandemic to the reality of the theater now."

Perry stated that the theater's website has what he described as an exhaustive community benefits package, which among other things states that APE "recognizes that cinema remains at the heart of the Castro Theatre and is dedicated to keeping film an integral component of the theatre's programming."

The theater "will continue our commitment to host the Annual Holiday Gay Men's Chorus performance, PRIDE activities, Harvey Milk Day, Lesbians Who Tech, and seek counsel from a panel of LGBTQ+ community leaders so that the theatre's programming reflects the needs and desires of the queer and Castro communities," the website states.

But that programming accounts for far fewer days of events compared to the theater's old schedule.

Perry mentioned Frameline, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, and Lesbians Who Tech — which is tentatively planning on holding its October confab at the site as the B.A.R. previously reported — as groups that APE is in discussion with.

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus responded to a request for comment on the community benefits package and discussions with APE as of press time.

"San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus looks forward to returning to the Castro Theatre this upcoming holiday season with what has become a much-anticipated tradition for our community," Executive Director Christopher Verdugo stated to the B.A.R.

So, too, did Frameline.

"Frameline will screen at the Castro Theatre between June 14-24, 2023, and we've very happy to be back," Executive Director James Woolley stated.

Lesbians Who Tech has not responded as of press time.

Known for concert promotion

APE is best known for concert promotion, such as at the Fox Theatre in Oakland that it manages, and the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco. Perry told the B.A.R. that APE has made this commitment to showing movies at the Castro Theatre while he answered questions about why it isn't screening films on a regular basis anymore.

Before the pandemic, the theater often showed films many times a week. In recent months, it has been dark for long stretches at a time.

Perry gave two reasons for this — one: the uncertainty of the theater's future considering city hearings that touch upon APE's plans for an interior renovation; two: a lack of audience for film screenings per se.

A dark Castro Theatre exacerbates the efforts of business leaders to woo people back to the LGBTQ neighborhood, which has seen visitors plummet during the pandemic. When programs or films took place at the theater, oftentimes patrons would have a drink or meal at a nearby restaurant or bar, increasing business — and foot traffic — in the area.

Terry Beswick, a gay man on the board of the Castro Merchants Association, told the B.A.R. that "common sense would suggest ... that the change of use from multiple daily film screenings and shows to late night concerts once or twice a week with three in-house bars and occasional rentals will be a net loss for neighborhood business," but that "no one really knows" what the impact of APE's future changes will be because "they have not been forthcoming with the details."

"We do not have a good sense of the impact on neighborhood businesses because although we have asked for their business model they have not been forthcoming," he stated.

Perry asserted that the theater will not have three bars inside, stating after the initial online publication of this report that claims otherwise are "inaccurate and inflammatory."

"There will be two concessions (as there are now)," Perry wrote in a text message. "Yes, they will serve alcohol as is quite standard. They are not bars."

APE's community benefit package does state it will work with local restaurants and offer "meaningful business opportunities on all activities associated with the theatre and its programming."

"Event concessions will feature various menu items from a wide array of Castro restaurants, as well as hiring these local restaurants to provide catering services to performers and their staff," the document states "Other aspects of APE's internal operations will include utilizing local businesses for theatre maintenance, painting, electrical, janitorial, and hospitality needs in their efforts to repair the dilapidated conditions of the theatre."

City hearings

As the B.A.R. previously reported, hearings relating to the future of the Castro Theatre's interior landmark status and the appropriateness of APE's plans for the interior of the historic movie palace have been pushed back to April 3 and 13, respectively.

At issue with many critics is APE's desire to remove the raked orchestra seating. APE recently announced a revised seating plan for the theater that would preserve the raked element for film events. It includes a motorized floor that makes both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible, according to an announcement on the theater's Facebook page.

"We didn't program anything for several months because the status of the theater was up in the air," Perry said. "I do understand the community concern."

Last month, as the B.A.R. previously reported, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission approved recommending expanded interior landmarking for the Castro Theatre, but stopped short of specifically stating the orchestra seats were part of that. Instead, the commission recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the interior include that the character defining features of the orchestra level include the raked floor, aisles, and "presence of seating." It did recommend landmark status for 1920s seats in the balcony. (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

Final approval for the landmark status rests with the Board of Supervisors, whose land use committee will hear the matter in early April.

Those advocating keeping the orchestra seats asked the Historic Preservation Commission to further clarify the language in the proposed ordinance to more accurately restate the factual findings approved by the commission, but the commissioners declined to do so.

During that same Historic Preservation Commission meeting Jim Abrams, an attorney representing the Nasser family that owns the theater, showed internal numbers from the theater's 100th anniversary last year revealing that out of 1,400 seats some screenings — such as a matinee of "Casino" on June 10 — got as few as 16 patrons.

The theater "operated on a loss on over three-quarters of the days only films were shown," Abrams said.

Perry echoed this sentiment.

"It takes money to open the doors of the Castro Theatre," he said. "Everything that we do has to be paid for."

Perry said that if the certificate of appropriateness is granted by the planning commission and APE's plans move forward, the time the theater is closed for the renovations — which would involve changing much of the fixed seating to moveable raked seating among other plans — would be considerable.

"You can safely say this is not going to be a three-month renovation," he said. "It will take several months to see that the theater is renovated."

Perry said that for the time being, the theater is actively seeking bookings.

Nonetheless, the next scheduled event isn't until the show "Meg Stalter, Patti Harrison, Sarah Sherman: The Live Nude Girls Tour" on Saturday, April 29, at 8 p.m.

Critics weigh in

Rob Byrne, a straight man who is president of the board of directors of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group fighting to preserve the seats and other aspects of the theater, isn't so convinced by Perry's explanation.

The conservancy is one of the groups spearheading the Save the Castro Theatre Coalition, which wants to block some of APE's proposed changes.

"The next scheduled show is April 29," Byrne said. "I can't speak to Another Planet's motivation for that — I don't know if they're trying to make a point or if it's the explanation they've given, but we are very interested in seeing the theater opening every day of the year.

"I'm not sure why you take one of the best, most iconic, most important movie theaters in America and turn it into a nightclub and think you're doing anything for the community or the city," he added.

Byrne said that as for the 100th anniversary going badly last June, there wasn't a lot of promotion that events were taking place.

"People wondered if they [APE] were intentionally doing a bad job to demonstrate that film has no future at the Castro Theatre," Byrne said.

Byrne said that moviegoers are coming back to theaters now that COVID is more of a factor of daily life and most restrictions have been lifted.

"There's a huge amount of interest in attending cinema again," he said. "It's definitely resurging."

While theater-going nationally has increased from pandemic lows, it was still down 47.6% in summer 2022 from summer 2019, according to CNBC.

And theater closures are taking place. Downtown Berkeley's last theater closed in January, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. It was part of a downsizing by Regal Cinemas after its parent company announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the paper reported.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said in regard to the APE's film commitment, "we don't know what these percentages are based on."

"This latest, sort of, high-gloss statement they are providing seems to be a continuation of the same statements they've made before with vague allusions to programming that will tick the box for LGBTQ film or cultural programming but with no binding commitments," Torres said. "They're continuing to pursue proposals that are extremely cost prohibitive for many of the programming groups that've done programs at the Castro to return."

Torres said that Perry's comments "illustrate the lack of cultural competency" because of the theater's historic role as a space where LGBTQ culture intermingles with classic films.

"They continue to assert repertory film is a thing of the past ... and yet so many of the grassroots purposes of the theater are tied to repertory film," he said. "There was just a piece on 'CBS Sunday Morning' about the revival of repertory exhibition and how this is tied to our cultural heritage, and they are trying to divorce this from LGBTQ culture?"

Castro Theatre rental inquiries can be made by contacting [email protected]

Tickets for the April 29 show are $35 and are available on APE's website.

Updated, 3/17/23: The actions by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission have been clarified, and David Perry has stated there will be two concession stands, which will serve alcohol but are not bars.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.