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Clay Thr/San Francisco Goes Dark

Monday, August 23, 2010

CLAY THEATER IN SAN FRANCISCO GOING DARK

 One of San Francisco’s oldest movie houses plans to shut the lights for good this month.

Landmark Theatres will walk away from the Clay on Sunday, leaving the Pacific Heights neighborhood without its single-screen theater.

“Single-screen movie theaters are a dying breed,” said Landmark Theatres CEO Ted Mundorff. “Many, if not most all, have gone away. We’ve been losing a lot of money there for a long time.”

Small movie houses like the Clay, which was built in 1910 as a nickelodeon, are shuttering as multiplexes such as the Metreon or Century 9 in the Westfield San Francisco Centre swallow business. Smaller venues can’t vie for the blockbusters, and they don’t have multiple screens to fall back on if a movie bombs. Even if they get a runaway hit, they don’t have the flexibility to extend the run because they’re locked into a schedule with distributors.

On-demand movies via cable and the Internet add even more pressure on the remaining few single-screen theaters in San Francisco. More than 10 have disappeared in the past 15 years. Many remain boarded up today. “To me, losing the Clay would be the domino that starts the last cascade toward death for single-screen theaters in San Francisco,” said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society.

The society, which runs the San Francisco International Film Festival, has offered to buy the Clay or continue paying Landmark’s lease to keep the theater running. “The film society could bring a new energy and excitement to the Clay,” said Alfonso Felder, a board member of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which has led successful fundraising campaigns to save the Vogue, Presidio, Cinema 21, 4-Star and New Mission theaters.

“We’re good at creating audiences,” Leggat said, noting that the film society’s membership and staff have tripled in the past three years, and its operating budget has doubled.

The Clay could continue showing foreign films and its weekly “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the San Francisco Film Society could find a permanent home, and the owner could continue collecting rent in a down economy, Leggat said. But their offer was rejected six weeks ago, and talks have since broken off with the building’s owner, Leggat said.

“Their offer wasn’t an offer as far as I’m concerned,” said landlord Balgobind Jaiswal of Woodside, who bought the building, including an adjacent clothing store, in 2008. Without the ability to get first-run movies, the Clay was simply losing too much money, Jaiswal said. “Now I’m in a pickle: A boarded-up theater is horrible for the street,” he said.

Gary Meyer, a former Landmark Theatres co-founder who left in 2001 to save the two-screen Balboa Theatre from closing, said it’s a struggle to get people to come to his movie house, which is also losing money. “People will say with the best of intentions how much they love your theater or the programming on your calendar, but when you ask them which movies they saw, the one thing I hear over and over is ‘none,’ ” Meyer said.

“They tell me they circle everything they like on the calendar and put it all in their Netflix queue.”

E-mail Meredith May at mmay@sfchronicle.com. This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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  1. Gary Lee Parks

    Must correct a tiny bit of history: The Clay opened in 1914, not 1910. This from Jack Tillmany’s very methodical research on San Francisco theatre openings, name changes, and closings. Somewhere, the year 1910 got written down rather recently, and it has since gone viral.

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