Walk down Mission Street and you can see the stripped remains of once-colorful theaters. El Capitan is now a parking lot. The Tower has jumbled letters spelling out “sale for” on its marquee, and graffiti covers the boards of what was once its box office. The Grand is a dollar store. Cine Latino’s paint has been peeling for nearly 25 years. The former Apollo Theater is now a Walgreen’s. New Mission is stagnant, waiting for a better economy.
The single remaining film theater is the Roxie, no stranger to the patterned extinction in the Mission District. But its future, albeit shaky, is looking far brighter than those of its shuttered neighbors.
“All I can tell you is what we’ve done today to keep the theater open. There’s no guarantee that it will be tomorrow,” said Rick Norris, the Roxie’s film coordinator. “Stability is not in our vocabulary.”
The Roxie is the oldest continuously operating cinema in San Francisco, originally established in 1909. In recent history, under the direction of owner Bill Banning, the Roxie survived the home video boom and rent woes. New College stepped in to help in 2005, stayed for less than two years, then handed the reins to alum Alan Holt, who established the theater as a nonprofit. It is currently run by husband-and-wife team Chris and Kate Statton.
As executive directors of the Roxie nonprofit, the Stattons believe the longterm survival of the theater depends on building a relationship with the community. For-profit businesses have to focus on selling a product to consumers, Chris Statton said, but a nonprofit engages the people it serves. “We’re focused on expanding the community of the Roxie.”
The couple has worked to develop relationships with local like-minded organizations, such as Southern Exposure and the Lab.
The goal of the Roxie, the couple said, is to become “a hub of art and culture.” They’ve also been working to develop more event-based programming, like twice-monthly Q&A nights with filmmakers. “We’re offering a service to the community,” Kate Statton said.
The Roxie, she added, plays a key role in preserving and presenting the history of cinema.
Since becoming a nonprofit, the theater has become more technically equipped to carry out its mission of cultural education. In addition to a lobby facelift, the theater received new sound and projection equipment from Pixar and a handful of grants. The Roxie will also be launching a membership program in 2011.
December will be a big month for the Roxie, with a large fundraiser and several community events, including “Drunk and Alone,” a screening of “Home Alone” accompanied by ice cream and beer floats.
Key to the Roxie’s survival has been its ability to stay current and cater to the community, said Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation.
“The Roxie has always served a specialty audience,” Felder said. “They’ve gone out and sought out art and independent films that aren’t playing anywhere else. That’s what differentiates them.”
The Roxie carefully curates films, Norris said. “We’ll move movies that were playing in other neighborhoods and that [are] specifically targeting our more local audience.” One such film is street artist Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” “This neighborhood has really responded to it,” Norris said. “Mission hipsters can’t seem to get enough of it,” he added jokingly.
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” has been on a 10-week nightly run, one of the Roxie’s longest-screening films this year. The last evening showing is Thursday at 9:15 p.m. in the Little Roxie. That night, the main theater shifts gears to host the SF Documentary Film Festival.
Norris said that supporting the Roxie is quite simple: “Buy tickets, become a member when we start that membership program, sign up for the e-mail list, come grab a calendar. That’s really the best way.”
“Pay attention when you go to a movie,” Felder added. “Make sure there’s the option to see it in a neighborhood theater. As people have that experience of going to that neighborhood theater, support for them will grow.”