In 2005, Gary Meyer, a co-founder of the Landmark theater chain and a director of the Telluride Film Festival, embarked upon an ill-fated experiment: He converted the Balboa Theater into repertory programming to capitalize on a hole in San Francisco’s rep house scene that was created when Anita Monga left the Castro Theater the previous year.
Unfortunately, while Meyer got kudos from the community, he didn’t get many patrons.
“The neighborhood audience would say, We love you and we want to support you, but we went to the Metreon,” Meyer said. “I met someone who said, ‘You do such great programming; I take that calendar home every month and circle movies and put them right in my Netflix queue.’”
But while Meyer ended up converting to a more conventional major studio first-run schedule within two years, Monga, the Castro’s longtime programmer, has found success programming local festivals like Noir City and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. In Bay Area cinema there are two related trends: the fall of the rep house and the rise of film festivals.
“The new art house is the film festival,” Meyer said.
While the Bay Area now has only a handful of rep theaters — loosely defined as movie houses that don’t screen first-run films from major studios — there are more than 60 festivals, according to the San Francisco Film Society. Meyer puts the count closer to 100.
“The film festival fulfills many of the functions that rep houses fulfilled in a prior era,” said Graham Leggat, director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, adding that in the last five years the festival expanded to year-round programming.
Rep theaters and revival theaters have been dying slowly for decades, beginning in the 1980s with the advent of VCRs and multiplexes. Even the introduction of new business strategies — like adding new Hollywood movies into the programming mix, renting out the theater more often to festivals and filmmakers, going dark on slow nights — has not saved places like the Parkway Speakeasy in the East Bay, which went out of business last year.
Repertory theaters peaked locally in the ’70s when about a dozen theaters were scattered across the Bay Area. That was the heyday, which “gave birth to the rep and revival movement,” said Christian Bruno, a filmmaker making a documentary about the history of Bay Area theaters.
One of the first rep houses in the country, the Cinema Guild, opened in Berkeley, although it may be better remembered as the place where Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic, got her start writing the theater’s program notes.
Currently, only two theaters in San Francisco still have strictly rep house programming: the Red Vic Movie House on Haight Street and the Roxie on 16th Street. Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley is the last exclusively repertory house in the East Bay. In Palo Alto, the Stanford Theatre is the area’s only revival house, showing movies made primarily from 1920 to 1965. (This breakdown does not include art house theaters that show first-run independent and mainstream fare.)
Rep and revival theaters have had a profound effect on cinema. Jack Tillmany, a film historian and former owner of the Gateway Theater in San Francisco, which closed in 1980, said studios at that time did not value their older films. For example, he said, Warner Brothers’ “Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) had to be restruck from a print in England for a Gateway screening.
“It wasn’t until revivals gave them respectability that they earned their place in history as something you could look at seriously,” Tillmany said.
The Bay Area has a huge appetite for cinema outside the mainstream and ranks first nationwide in concentration of independent filmgoers, according to a 2010 survey by Experian Simmons. Film festivals tap into this passion by tailoring programming to narrower tastes than traditional repertory calendars.
At the Roxie, for example, a sampling includes the Anti-Corporate Film Festival, the Irish Film Festival and Another Hole in the Head horror festival. Leggat sees the growth in number and variety of festivals as part of a larger picture.
“American culture is moving from mass entertainment to more specific niche entertainment,” he said.
Another reason for the success of festivals and programming series is that they make movie-going an event. Muller, for instance, goes to great lengths to show films that are not available on DVD, and he flies in film noir stars for onstage appearances.
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, who programs the Midnites for Maniacs series at various San Francisco venues, said that anything less than “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” would not find an audience.
Festivals and rep houses have a symbiotic relationship because the success of film festivals has helped theaters stay in business. Muller said he might lose venues for his festival if independent theater owners could not stay in business, but his concerns go deeper that that.
“We show original 35 millimeter prints, and it’s getting harder to get studios to ship them to us,” he said, explaining that digital projection is the norm now. “In five years, there will be a change of some sort. We’re running out of film, and then who knows?”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Gary Meyer as founder of the Landmark theater chain and a founder of the Telluride Film Fest. He was a co-founder of Landmark and director of the Telluride festival. Also, Anita Monga was incorrectly named Anita Mongahad. The story has been corrected.