The Castro and the loss of repertory cinema

Losing the California and the Castro in one month?! That’s a bad January for Bay Area cinephiles. But losing the Castro Theatre was the one that really hurt.

As long as I’ve lived in the Bay Area, and especially after the UC Theatre went dark and then became a music venue, the Castro Theatre has been the perfect place to see vintage cinema. In the late ’70s, I saw an Errol Flynn double bill, 2001, and North by Northwest there. In recent years, I saw, for the first time on the big screen, Die Hard and The Best Years of Our Lives. And then there were all those film festivals. The Castro’s owners kept up with the technology. Over the years, they installed 70mm, 4K digital projection, 5.1 digital audio, a giant pipe organ for silents (and intermission music), and three types of 3D.

And when the lights came up, you were in one of the most beautiful theaters ever. Made more than 100 years ago, when movie theaters were called palaces, this was one of the best.

But are we really going to lose the Castro as a cinema?

It’s likely no more – at least as a movie theater. The Nasser family, which controlled the Castro for a century, is turning the Castro over to Another Planet Entertainment – the company that controls Berkeley’s Greek Theater, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and the Outside Lands music festival. I’m not sure they’re interested in showing old movies.

Perhaps I’m overdoing it. Gregg Perloff, CEO and founder of Another Planet Entertainment, told the Chronicle’s G. Allen Johnson that he has “no intention of curbing the film programming.” And yet, Perloff also told Johnson that they’re thinking of “doing a little of everything. The intention is to have film and film festivals, along with music and comedy and lectures. Ultimately, the public will tell us what they want to see.”

Big-screen revival cinema started dying with the advent of home video. People could now see their favorite classics anytime, in their own home. In 1980, the Bay Area was filled with revival cinemas. Thirty years later when COVID closed down the theaters, we had only four Bay Area theaters playing all or mostly vintage films. Of those four, only one is now regularly screening old movies.

That one is The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). As part of an art museum connected to the University of California, it doesn’t need to make a profit (although donations and memberships will help).

Two other revival cinemas that closed with COVID have still not yet reopened: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and the Stanford. Both are old theaters that need physical repair. Both are run by nonprofits.

Unlike the three theaters above, the Castro was always a for-profit business. Perhaps that’s why it couldn’t keep on going.

But big-screen vintage cinema isn’t dead in the Bay Area – and not just from the BAMPFA. Theaters that make their money mostly from new movies are also showing old ones. Take a look at the Balboa‘s website. Just through February, this small, twin theater is screening Sorry to Bother You, Groundhog Day, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Room, Spirited Away, Paper Moon, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, My Bloody Valentine, Harold and Maude, Back to the Future, Boyz N the Hood, The Evil Dead, and I Am Not Your Negro.

Other theaters that often play vintage films along with new ones include the Elmwood, Roxie, New Mission, New Parkway (currently closed), and the Rafael. In addition, Fathom Events, working with Turner Classic Movies, runs classics in the big multiplexes.

Many people will be angry about this, but a lot of these presentations happen because of digital projection. It’s much cheaper and easier to ship and project a digital “print” than dealing with thousands of feet of film. It also means that when a film is screened on real film, it’s an event that brings in more people.

A demonstration of nitrate film during the SF Silent Film Festival, at the Castro 

I can’t stop the loss of the Castro as a movie theater. But Bay Area theaters will show movies, old and new, for some time.