The fate of the Castro Theater is the most significant debate in San Francisco nightlife right now. Berkeley promoter Another Planet Entertainment continues its quest to renovate the theater and install a motorized raked flooring setup that it says will convert the theater into a far friendlier room to host the bevy of concert tours that people flock to. While supporters of the 100-year-old theater have remained equally steadfast in their attempts to get the current floorplan landmarked, thus preserving the Castro as a local movie palace first and foremost.
Considering everyone seems to be so passionate around these parts about local independent movie houses, you’d think that the city’s many fine theaters besides the Castro would be packed on the regular? A recent Friday night trip to the Vogue Theatre in centrally located Lower Pac Heights for a viewing of Prince’s epic Purple Rain (on the 7th anniversary of Prince’s death no less!) showed me otherwise. I was left perplexed as to who wouldn’t want to go see Purple Rain in a local movie house while stuffing their faces with delicious popcorn, but also excited to sing the praises of local hybrid first-run and revival houses like The Vogue that are consistently presenting innovatively-curated programming.
You see, I went to the AMC Metreon a couple weeks ago to watch that dark-comedy vampire flick, Renfield, with Nicolas Cage. The movie was fine, Cage of course stole the show in a film I enjoyed, but will probably never see again. The experience however? It kinda sucked.
Look, I like that we live in a world now where you can pick your seats at a big movie theater so you’re not anxiously trying to convince total strangers to move down so everyone can squeeze in. But it (along with cushy push-button reclining seats) comes at a price. At AMC, it’s $21 a ticket and 26 minutes of trailers and commercials. That’s right, not just previews, but also straight up commercials like the ones you’d mute at home. It felt like we were being ruthlessly marketed to. The last straw for me was a starry-eyed Nicole Kidman in an AMC ad, fawning over the “indescribable feeling” that we “need” in our lives, and can only get at AMC, because we’re much more than just “entertained” when we’re there. Look Nicole, you’re not taking ayahuasca, it’s just a movie.
But I digress. Because my evening at The Vogue last Friday was just plain delightful. On Sacramento Street just off Presidio Ave, The Vogue has just one screen that’s a walk-up from the street separated by a modest concession stand. You’re so close to the theater doors that you can reasonably ask the ticket taker if you have five-10 minutes to burn a quick joint before the movie starts (we did and we did). The “trailers” were a mix of retro ephemera, culminating with a cheeky old ad for Bic lighters. Here, I didn’t feel like my data was being collected, this was more like walking through a vintage store. Yes, please.
I passed on an It’s-It ice cream sandwich (they sell those!) and decided to eat my weight in popcorn instead while Prince showed how much better he is than Morris Day. A concert film in disguise, with some questionable script-writing that we forgive because Prince is so damn fascinating and cute, Purple Rain actually has some gorgeous cinematography. And its climax of a performance of the titular song, is a top 10 music film-making moment: I couldn’t think of a better place to be watching it in a large-scale format.
But somehow, the theatre was much less than half full? For Purple Rain on Friday night?! I don’t get it. For as much as we’ve been touting how important local movie houses are to our city’s cultural health, we are aware that there are other places with a similar spirit to the Castro, right?
The Vogue for one, was first opened in 1912 and has been operated by the CinemaSF group—which also runs the Richmond District’s Balboa Theater and now the 4Star Theater on Clement Street too—for the past 12 years. (You can donate to help all three survive here.) The Vogue’s slate of programming includes new films like A24’s Michelle Williams and Andre Benjamin-starring Showing Up, as well as two-night repertory cinema showings of classics from across the spectrum like Zodiac, Clueless, Funny Girl, The Producers and Dazed & Confused. I can pretty much assure that these are a better bet than (insert “Old Man Yells at Cloud” meme) the crap these Hollywood studios are releasing these days.
The fate of the Castro Theater is still hanging in the balance as the SF Board of Supervisors will likely be voting on whether to landmark the most talked about seats in town or not in the next couple of weeks. And whatever happens, just know that San Francisco is still, for now, flush with incredible independent movie houses like The Vogue, Balboa, 4Star, and of course, The Roxie. And all you have to do to keep those alive, is do what everyone is saying they want to be able to keep doing in San Francisco, and go to the movies. The popcorn will be hot.