Guest Opinion: The Castro Theatre can thrive again — but it must adapt

  • by Ralph Hibbs and Brendan Smith
  • Wednesday May 3, 2023
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Another Planet Entertainment has pledged $15 million to renovate the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Another Planet Entertainment has pledged $15 million to renovate the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter

In January 2022, Another Planet Entertainment announced an agreement with the Nasser family, which owns the century-old Castro Theatre. APE would take over management and programming of the magnificent but decaying venue at the heart of the Castro and invest $15 million to restore its historic features, improve its facilities and accessibility, and install removable seats on the main level to allow for a greater diversity of programming. Since that announcement, public discussion on the proposed renovation has been dominated by a vocal minority opposed to APE's plans who claim to represent the neighborhood's interests.

Yet over the last two months, the many Castro community members who back the renovation plans have made their voices heard. At an April 17 Board of Supervisors land use committee hearing on the theater, a coalition of Castro residents and merchants filled the meeting room to express support for APE's proposal. They held signs that read, "Save Our Jobs, Save Our Neighborhood, Save Our Businesses." During the public comment period, supporters of APE's plan outnumbered opponents 85 to 58. They sent hundreds of letters to committee members prior to the hearing and submitted a petition signed by over 100 Castro business owners and managers endorsing APE's proposal without conditions. Despite this broad support, the committee voted 2-1 to endorse historically landmarking the theater's fixed seats, which would likely block APE from carrying out the renovation.

It's not just APE's renovation plans that have wide community backing. Its programming plans do as well. COVID-19 and competition from streaming services have caused movie ticket sales to plummet, and rather than bind the Castro Theatre to a declining industry, neighbors see expanding its uses to include live music events and comedy shows, among others, as both desirable and prudent.

Many queer people, particularly from younger generations, regularly travel downtown and across the bay to attend concerts at other venues. Sadly, the Castro Theatre's previous programming largely failed to entice these same individuals to visit the historic venue in the city's premier LGBTQ+ neighborhood. Were the theater able to host the acclaimed artists APE can secure, it would significantly broaden its appeal — giving residents access to diverse, high-quality entertainment options and bolstering its ability to operate sustainably well into the future.

Perhaps most importantly, increased foot traffic in the Castro would be a sorely needed boon for the local economy. A 2019 study of arts and performance venues in Chicago found that every dollar spent on tickets generates about $12 of economic impact for the community. With between 51-55 retail vacancies blighting the footprint of the Castro Community Benefit District, a thriving venue that regularly hosts events with over 1,000 people could dramatically revitalize the neighborhood and boost our local businesses, including the many that are LGBTQ+-owned.

So how did we get embroiled in controversy over 20-year-old seats? In April 2022, a small union of groups joined together to demand that the Nasser family, who built and have owned the theater for the past 101 years, fulfill a long list of unreasonable demands. Little respect was shown for their past stewardship or their vision for the theater's future. Even more importantly, they showed no understanding of the basic economics of operating an aging large-scale theater. Each had their own reasons for blocking APE's proposal including nostalgic memories of past cinema experiences or a narrow view of what constitutes LGBTQ+ programming. What they lacked was a practical concept for operating an entertainment venue in the 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, there is not a throng of programming companies clamoring to take on this project. And the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group intent on landmarking the movie-palace style seating, has not offered a viable plan. The plan released by the group on April 26 is aspirational, lacking firm funding commitments, a detailed financial plan, and any evidence of a sustainable operating model.

The CTC plan demands that the Nasser family sell it the theater or lease it for at least 60 years while it attempts to raise $20-$40 million for renovations — with no guarantee of success. Because the Nasser family does not wish to sell, the CTC has backed the fixed-seating amendment as a way to doom any programming model other than the film-dominated one it proposes, in effect forcing the family to cede control of the theater their grandfather built. And the 250-plus days of film programming per year that the conservancy proposes is simply not viable in a 1,400-seat theater.

APE has made tangible commitments to address the concerns of opponents. It added $3 million to its investment budget to improve the film experience with a new sound system, screen, and automated raked floor that delivers improved sight lines and more comfortable seating. It pledged to make the theater ADA-compliant and accessible to all. It committed to a minimum of 33% film and 25% LGBTQ+ programming, as well as eight community days per year when it will be offered at greatly reduced cost to community groups. We believe APE respects the Castro Theatre's history and understands its importance as a gathering place for our community.

As the Castro rebuilds from COVID-19, we need to welcome businesses that want to invest in our neighborhood. A bustling, restored Castro Theatre is essential to the long-term health of our businesses, our street life, and our neighborhood's ability to remain a beacon of queer life for generations to come. Change is difficult, but the renovation plan presented by APE offers an opportunity for this venue to adapt and thrive in a new era, and we can't afford to let that slip away. If the full Board of Supervisors votes to accept the Land Use Committee's amendment landmarking the fixed seats, it could mean "lights out" for the Castro Theatre.

Ralph Hibbs is a gay resident of the Castro who led the merchant petition effort for unconditional support of APE's renovation plans. Brendan Smith is a gay resident of the Castro who has co-led neighbor mobilization efforts in support of the renovation plans. Both are part of a group of neighbors organizing local support for the project. They can be reached at [email protected] or on Instagram at @restore_the_castro_theatre

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