Poor Box Office

Box office sales are down. Studios are making less from theaters that from DVD sales. There’s panic in the streets of LA.

There are plenty of theories as to why people have lost the theater habit. Mick LaSalle wrote an excellent article about them in Wednesday’s Chronicle. But does this trend extend to the art/repertoire/calendar houses tracked on bayflicks.net? After a quick, informal poll of theater programmers and managers, I have to report that it does. But there’s hope.

Steve Indig, Bay Area Marketing Manager for Landmark Theaters, argues that “we don’t really mirror trends at commercial theatres,” but he admits that “we’re down a bit.” Quality might actually be the issue here, or at least broad appeal. Indig told me that Landmark hasn’t seen any good tentpole films this year–independent movies whose popularity crosses to mainstream audiences, like Sideways. That could change. “Currently March of the Penguins has that potential.”

The Parkway has its own tentpole movies, some of which, like Kung Fu Hustle and Rize, didn’t do well in first run. According to Programmer and Publicist Will Cortes Viharo, special events like Thrillville and African Diaspora “pick up the second run slack. So while I wouldn’t say we’re immune to industry trends – the point is we’re not – we do have more options.” It also doesn’t hurt that people are willing to spend more on food at the Parkway than at most theaters.

But the most optimistic response came from the artiest art house of them all, the Pacific Film Archive. “We are actually doing quite well…better than we had projected for the year,” says Theater Manager Becky Mertens. She sees uniformity as the problem with more conventional art houses, which “seem to all be showing the same couple of movies.” Why can’t they show more variety? “The [interesting] films are definitely being made,” but the problem is distribution. “The solution might be to…go beyond distributors to the filmmakers themselves to get the film they want to screen.”

I have another idea: Cultivate an audience who love to see movies theatrically; people like…well…um…me. After all, I saw three movies theatrically just last weekend. So the solution for endangered multiplexes is…more silent movie festivals.

Okay, maybe not. But you personally can help the situation by turning off the TV and going out to see The Fantastic Four and Bewitched. Or better yet, you can see something good, like the films I discuss below. And if the list below is dominated by silents, sorry, but it’s just that time of year.

Quick note: I’ll be following my “red dot” policy for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. A red dot () next to a title means it will get a regular theatrical release after the festival, so catching them at the festival needn’t be your top priority.

Noteworthy: Spies, Pacific Film Archive, Friday night. I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s nearly three-hour epic about a master criminal who sidelines as a bank president (hey, the jobs aren’t that different) and a clown (okay, those are), but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. Part of the Archive’s For Your Eyes Only: Operatives, Surveillants, and Saboteurs In Cinema series. With Jon Mirsalis on Piano.

Noteworthy: Wings, Castro, Friday through Sunday. It’s not that great a movie, but it has some spectacular aerial combat footage and a walk-on by a very young Gary Cooper. It also won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. The Castro will be presenting a new archival print accompanied by Warren Lubitsch on the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Noteworthy: The Night Cry, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night. Rin Tin Tin was a movie star like no other–talented, charismatic, and capable of saving the most mediocre story by his mere presence. He also had four legs and a tail. I haven’t seen The Night Cry, but I dearly love the one Rin Tin Tin movie I have seen (Clash of Wolves, which is coming to the Rafael next week), so I’m optimistic. With piano accompaniment by Harry Goelet.

Noteworthy: I’m No Angel, Pacific Film Archive, later Sunday afternoon. I haven’t seen Mae West’s second staring vehicle in about 25 years, so I hesitate to give it an absolute recommendation. But I remember it being very funny, and maybe her best. Part of the Archive’s Trouble In Paradise: Pre-Code Hollywood series.

Recommended: Go for Zucker!, Castro, Thursday night. Possibly the first Jewish film from Germany in 70 years that’s not about the Holocaust, and almost certainly the funniest. The Zucker of the title is a secular Jew and pool hall hustler who must host his hated, orthodox relatives for a week or lose his inheritance. I’m not sure non-Jews will get all of the jokes, but for me, this one is funnier than that other recent German comedy about reunification and reconciliation, Goodbye, Lenin. This is the opening night program for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.