How Larkspur’s historic movie house is defying the odds against single-screen theaters [California]
by Dani Burlison
The rows of 246 vintage-remake seats—complete with classic brass number plaques—spill out in the splendidly restored art deco Lark Theater in Larkspur [California]. Glass light fixtures along the walls remain in pristine condition 70 years after lighting the way for moviegoers who’d bought tickets for first-run showings of future classics like Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane and Casablanca invokes nostalgia for those pre-Netflix, pre-Hulu and pre-cineplex days now threatened with extinction.
Built in 1936, the Lark was for years a fixture in the quaint community—until eventually a lack of ticket sales pulled the curtain down in the late 1990s, seemingly for good. After six years the historical building with its retro sign towering over Magnolia Avenue was set for demolition. But in a move that changed the fate of the downtown, Larkspur resident and avid film buff Bernice Baeza stepped up and purchased the building in 2004. The single-screen venue was restored and reopened as a nonprofit—thanks to the generosity of donors and community volunteers who recognized the historical, cultural and economic value of having such an establishment up and operating. The Lark, and community theaters like it, draws business to surrounding restaurants and retailers, serving as a centerpiece for a vibrant downtown. Nearly eight years later, the Lark remains a focal point of the town—much in the same way it did during its Hollywood Golden Age years.
The Lark has seen its fair share of challenges. Aside from the limited number of films a single-screen theater can offer at any given time, the theater industry’s little known—oftentimes bureaucratic and confusingly complex—booking system keeps the Lark on its toes. As contracts are made between distribution companies and theaters—primarily based on how many screens each cinema has—small houses are often overlooked while bigger multiplexes get first pick of new releases. The Lark—and 350 theaters like it across the nation—is often left with second-run films that are no longer all the rage in multi-screen venues.
“Many of the distribution companies see single-screen theaters as a joke,” laments Baeza over tea in the Lark’s small lobby.
Yet it also means that the bigger theaters are often contractually bound to stick with certain films for longer than they’d like, leaving many hidden-gem “leftovers” slipping through for Baeza to program.
Baeza doesn’t merely stand on the sidelines waiting to see what trickles down from the multiplexes, though. She looks at the Lark’s unique position in the theater industry as a challenge—and an opportunity to show more independent films and bring performance-based programs to the community. The Lark has also had significant successes by screening films like the 2006 Oscar-winning Crash—a film that was initially dismissed by the big theaters, a miscalculation that left the door open for the Lark to show it just as its Oscar momentum was picking up. Small indies are also easier to obtain, as their distribution companies tend to be less cutthroat and lack the big-studio regulations about who gets to show what… and when.
So how does such a small venue keep chugging along against 21st century competition from digitized multiplexes and movie-watchers’ ability to stream movies at home?
“We do a large variety of things to keep the theater surviving,” says Baeza. Among them are the community programs unique to the Lark—non-movie entertainment like the Live at the Met opera series, the National Theater of London program and a selection of big-screen sports broadcasts. It’s programming that serves distinct demographic groups who, for the most part, can’t find the same thing anywhere else in Marin. And the creative programming doesn’t stop there—the Lark also offers a youth film festival and family film events, one-time specials like President Obama’s inaugural speech, the Lost finale—and CineMama: matinees especially for nursing mothers!
Not all of the Lark’s demographically targeted programming finds its audience easily, Baeza has discovered. Last fall, the theater was set to screen a documentary by local filmmakers Nena and Cassie Jaye titled Daddy I Do, about the conservative-Christian trend of father-daughter chastity balls. But in an unprecedented move, certain members of the Lark board objected to the film and ordered it removed from the schedule. Community outrage over the cancellation led other board members to intercede, apologize and schedule another screening of the film. The public-relations furor got so bad that board member Chris Albinson replaced Tina McArthur as board chair and announced that the Lark would from then on offer training to board members about their roles and responsibilities. “It’s not the board’s role—nor should it be—to program the theater,” he told Pacific Sun reporter Ronnie Cohen at the time. The uproar became so nasty—particularly over the Internet—that the names of the board members who pulled the film were kept under wraps for fear over their safety.
Baeza, to say the least, is glad to put the Daddy I Do episode in the rearview mirror and look to the road ahead—a road that at the moment leads north up Highway 101 to Novato.
• • • •
BAEZA’S LATEST VENTURE is transferring what she’s learned from running the Lark to reopening the long-shuttered Novato Theater on Grant Avenue [Novato, California]. She recently purchased it—technically, the new nonprofit she formed did—for $50,000 after the city put it up for bids. (The purchase is in a sort of movie-theater escrow, with the bid accepted by the city and now the fundraising begins.) The theater, which has been closed for two decades, has witnessed several failed attempts at revival—most recently with a nonprofit organization that spent 10 years attempting to raise the estimated $3 million it will require in renovation expenses to reopen. Now Baeza is the one hard at work raising funds. “The organization is made up of Novato residents,” she says of the fundraising and organizing committee. “It just makes sense that a community-based theater should be centered around that community.”
Like the Lark, the Novato Theater is expected to be not only a venue for film, but a center for performing arts and cultural events.
While the purchase of the has been met with enthusiasm by many—it helps that Baeza is local and has experience reopening and operating a similar nearby venue—the outpouring of support has been countered by some criticism and concerns about the purchase price. In particular, the city’s pledged financial support—which councilmembers say will not exceed $100,000—has remained in a somewhat hazy spotlight.
With the city in such financial straits that it pleaded with voters to approve a half-cent sales-tax increase in November (it passed) simply to keep vital senior and kids programs running, some argue that the $100,000 should be funneled elsewhere. Others take issue with the seemingly low $50,000 selling price that, while indeed the highest bid, doesn’t sound like a lot for a building in the heart of downtown’s busiest street.
Still, Baeza remains optimistic about raising the funds and gaining support for this latest project. “The city of Novato has invested in their downtown. They want this to pay off for the merchants who will benefit from having a running theater downtown,” she says.
Vowing to get approval for the $100,000 in matching funds, 5th District Supervisor Judy Arnold, a former Novato City councilwoman, shares Baeza’s positive outlook on the beneficial economic impact the reopened theater could eventually have on the Novato community. “I share in the excitement of Novato having a theater like the Lark that serves so many purposes. The community of Larkspur raised more than $1.4 million in four months to get their theater open. They have a population of 11,000, and the average amount donated was $750,” she wrote in a public statement last month.
An agreement made with the city of Novato holds Baeza and the newly formed Novato Theater organization responsible for raising the additional $650,000 for renovations and initial operating costs by this June. This chunk of change is expected to be raised primarily through community donations and without the help of grant funds that often have a lengthy two-year application cycle.
“The Lark only had four months to raise the necessary funds and it happened,” says an optimistic Baeza. “Now we have a call of action out to the [Novato] community. It’s up to them.”
The group, working with Baeza, draws in community members at its two weekly meetings, where organizers strategize about fundraising and other hands-on needs.
“The volunteers are my right and left hands,” says Baeza. “We’ve got people coming forward with offers of electrical work and other work that will need to be done after the theater opens.”
So how will Baeza succeed at opening a user-friendly film and performing arts center when other groups have failed in the past? “The key is to raise all or most of the money first and then hire the architect,” she says.
Baeza says she has been contacted by interested donors and that things are lining up nicely. Still, volunteers are needed and very much encouraged to take part in the fundraising efforts.
In an industry with 20 to 30 fewer films coming out of Hollywood each year, it may be the bigger theaters that should worry more about competition—while smaller theaters such as the Lark and the Novato Theater rise up to meet the needs of our growing communities. With more interest directed at international, independent and documentary films, it appears that the smaller theaters do indeed have a fighting chance in the cutthroat entertainment world. “The larger theaters seem to be concerned about the smaller pool of product,” says Baeza. “It’s a very changeable business. You have got to be flexible.”
Baeza’s business-savvy techniques are not the only advantages she brings to the table. Her sheer excitement about—and love of—film fuels her motivation in opening the new theater. “There is a love fest that goes on around films,” she says. “I get so excited about film and think that film is the most powerful form of communication!”
==LET’S OPEN A THEATER!==
To help get the projector rolling at the Novato Theater, email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop in at a volunteer meeting:
Tuesdays at 7pm, flourChylde Bakery Cafe, 850 Grant Avenue, Novato
Thursdays at 2pm, Hilltop 1892, 850 Lamont Avenue, Novato
== ON A LARK==
Some fun and exciting upcoming programs
The Lark is currently showing such recent Oscars-winning and Oscar-nominated films as The Social Network, Black Swan, How to Train Your Dragon, Waste Land and Inside Job. Check out our movie listings for the coming week on page 23 or visit www.larktheater.net for more upcoming showtimes.
National Theatre of London Presents:
Thursday, March 17 at 7:30pm
Saturday, March 26 at 1pm
The Cherry Orchard
Thursday, June 30 at 7:30pm
Saturday, July 9 at 1pm
Exploring Opera at The Lark, Spring Series:
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
Tuesday, March 8 at 1pm
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory
Tuesday, April 5 at 1pm
Verdi’s Il Trovatore
Tuesday, April 26 at 1pm
Family Film Series
How To Train Your Dragon
Saturday, March 5 at 3pm
Saturday, March 12 and Sunday, March 13 at 3pm
Youth Film Festival
Sunday, April 3
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