31 and Balboa Theatre at Night

Balboa Theater photographed in 2015

2018 was a pivotal year for the Bay Area’s historic movie theaters. While the region has seen a late film renaissance, theater attendance continues to decline, leaving the future of its silver screens in limbo.

In August, the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland was purchased by its longtime leaseholder, Alan Michaan. Michaan has committed to getting the theater on the National Register of Historic Places to give it landmark status, make major improvements, and continue showing movies.

The theater was built in 1926, and the lease was taken over by Michaan in 1980, who spent $3.5 million at the time on renovations. Built in Neoclassical and Art Deco style, the theater has an iconic rooftop sign (the largest rotary contact sign west of the Mississippi River), and the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ still plays on Friday and Saturday evenings. Michaan paid $3.74 million for the building this year.

Although Michaan intends to keep Grand Lake open as a movie theater, San Francisco has seen a trend of historic movie theaters being repurposed for novel uses.

A Future for Theaters Past

Union Street’s Metro Theater in Cow Hollow was converted to an Equinox gym. The Metro, which was built in 1924, was the original home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest international film festival in the United States. It closed in 2006 and was designated a historical landmark in 2009 before becoming Equinox in 2014. The inside was completely remodeled, but the original facade and some of the art deco murals remain.

Gyms have become popular alternatives for community theaters, because they can often utilize the large, awkward space. The historic Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street was a bit ahead of the trend—it closed in 1998, two years after receiving landmark status, and was converted into a Crunch Fitness in 2001.

Another creative use for a movie theater space: a baseball academy. The Bridge Theater in San Francisco’s Richmond District, which was once a single-screen theater, is now the San Francisco Baseball Academy. At the SFBA, players age seven and up can take private lessons, group classes, attend baseball camps or take advantage of cage rentals and open hitting hour. The facility has four hitting tunnels, one bullpen and a lobby where guests can watch a baseball game on large, HD TVs. It is also open for birthday parties and corporate events. This historic theater also changed hands in 2014.

Not all old movie theaters have had to give up on their roots, however. In San Francisco, nonprofit groups have led the way in keeping historic and repertory cinemas up and running. Perhaps the most high-profile success has been the Mission District’s Roxie Cinema, which famously lays claim to the title of America’s oldest continuously open film venue.

“Keeping an arthouse cinema like ours thriving is more challenging now than it has ever been,” said the Roxie’s Executive Director, Elizabeth O’Malley. “Plainly stated, tickets, concessions, and community rentals do not cover what it costs to run a historic cinema in San Francisco. Working out of a 100 year old building with continuously increasing rent and operating costs, makes what we do a challenge.”

The Roxie’s recipe for survival has been to double down on its signature ouvre—a cutting edge mix of independent and world cinema, with regular focus on work from the Spanish-speaking world, reflecting its Mission roots. These are combined with value-added experiences such as artist conversations and live performances, along with regular screenings in 35mm film format, which has become increasingly rare as most theaters now rely on digital projection.

“As I am sure is the case for other local theaters like the Grand Lake, Vogue and Balboa, our main competition is national chain theaters and streaming services. We survive by setting ourselves apart from the rest and offering something more than movies,” said O’Malley.

The nonprofit San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation and CinemaSF acquired the Vogue Theater in 2007 and the Balboa theater in 2011. The Vogue Theater, which opened in 1910 in Presidio Heights, is the second oldest operating movie theater in San Francisco.

The Balboa, which has been open since 1926, is located in the Outer Richmond District. Both theaters have continued to show films since they opened about 100 years ago, a true testament to the value of neighborhood theaters. The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation’s website states that its mission is: “[an organization] dedicated to preserving historic movie theatres. We believe that historic theatres contribute to the unique character of neighborhoods and enhance the quality of life of City residents.”

Nonprofit organizing has shown that, while these theaters may not be profitable on their own, they are an integral part of the history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, some historic theaters are still living in limbo and have not yet found new lives. Avenue Theater in Portola closed in 1984 and was abandoned, its historic beauty falling away to graffiti and decay.

In 2015, the community, led by the Portola Neighborhood Association, came together to raise $250,000 to renovate the iconic neon sign. The agreement was that once the sign was restored, the owners would support the search for a tenant who would finish restoring the theater and re-open it. Churn Urban Creamery, a pop-up creamery founded in the Outer Sunset, is eyeing the space for its first brick and mortar location, but first it has to finish working out some kinks.

“The process has taken longer than expected, due to many reasons including the current state of the space and negotiations with the ownership,” said Rica Kwan, the owner of Churn Urban Creamery. “In the part of the theater that was formerly Johnson’s Barbecue, we plan to open up a creamery/bakery, specializing in farm fresh flavors made from scratch.”

Kwan hopes that once the space is open, it will be a family-friendly community hub. She also wants to host other pop-up businesses in her space, similar to what businesses did for Churn in its beginning stages.  

The Town Goes to Tinseltown

2017 was the worst year for box office attendance since 1992, but according to Box Office Mojo, 2018 is on track to be a much more successful year. The failure of 2017’s movies has been attributed to many factors, from ticket prices to streaming services to the reliance on sequels and spin-offs in Hollywood over original stories, but there’s no way to be certain.

Indeed, 2018 was quite successful for major theater chains in the region, such AMC and Cinemark, who are spending thousands of dollars on improvements to enhance the moviegoing experience, like reclining seats and nicer food. Some of these chains have also been consolidating. 16-theater AMC complex is just 4 miles away from Grand Lake at the Bay Street shopping center, complete with a cocktail bar in the lobby.

The emerging pattern is a study in contrasts: while the industry as a whole struggles to fend off declining attendance, the Bay Area seems to be booming, both in consumption and cultural relevance.

Michaan told the SF Chronicle that last year was highest-grossing year Grand Lake has ever had, surpassing its previous record with four months to go before the end of 2018. That record likely has something to do with Oakland’s recent spotlight in trio of homegrown films: Black Panther, Sorry To Bother You, and Blindspotting.

Black Panther, of course, was a box-office smash, raking in $1.344 billion as of May 2018 and earning the honor of being the world's ninth-highest-grossing film of all time.The night Black Panther opened at Grand Lake, Coogler made a surprise appearance and regaled the audience with his memories of seeing films at Grand Lake, saying it was the first movie theater he remembers attending.  Coogler, the director, is an Oakland native who made his name in Hollywood with the film Fruitvale Station, the true story of a black man shot and killed by police at the Fruitvale BART station. Black Panther was Coogler’s third gig as a director of a major film.


A few months after Coogler’s appearance, Hamilton star Daveed Diggs surprised the Grand Lake audience at the premiere of his film, Blindspotting. Diggs and his childhood best friend, Rafael Casal, both grew up in Oakland and co-wrote the film, in addition to co-starring.

Casal and Diggs called the film a “love letter” to the city before recalling the films they saw at Grand Lake as children, just as Coogler did—Diggs and his father would often walk to the theater to see films like The Little Mermaid.

Another Oakland native, Boots Riley, made a film with similar themes: Sorry To Bother You, filmed in Oakland and set in a present-day alternate reality of the city has been described by Riley as “an absurdist dark comedy with aspects of magical realism and science fiction inspired by the world of telemarketing.” Riley, marking his directorial debut with this smash hit, is also a rapper in the East Bay group The Coup, and a well-known Occupy Oakland activist.

These films have no doubt boosted the profile of Grand Lake and the general excitement for films in the Oakland community. Only time will tell if the Grand Lake Theater will sustain itself as a movie theater or find another use for its space, as theater attendance continues to give way to streaming services. For the time being, we can expect to see The City and The Town trying a combination of different approaches to keep eager audiences happy.

Mike Ege contributed to this report.

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