Movie Theaters Can’t Be Replaced

The 4 Star Theater on Clement is hosting a Scorsese retrospective all of September. Photo by Leila Tselner / SF Foghorn

It’s near impossible to have survived July without hearing the word “Barbenheimer” at least once. The phrase is a fusion of titles for the summer’s biggest hit films, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Chistopher Nolan’s “Oppenhiemer,” which were released on the same day and have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars globally.

Though blockbusters typically do well in the box office, this cultural phenomenon felt different, with moviegoers meticulously planning double screenings of the two films and dressing in themed outfits. With all the buzz surrounding these films, it feels as though people are finally becoming excited about going to the movies again, something that seems to have lost some of its allure in a post-pandemic society with the rise of costs and saturation of streaming platforms.

In 2021, San Francisco’s nearly 100-year-old West Portal theater, CineArts Empire was permanently closed, and this year in early June of 2023, The Century San Francisco Centre 9 Theater announced the closing of its doors. Historic San Francisco theater locations, such as the Grand on Mission Street and the Bridge Theater on Geary Boulevard have also been forced to shut their doors for good. This is not limited to San Francisco; theaters across the United States have been in a steady decline since the 1990s. 

The pandemic has been a death knell for many cinemas, with theaters struggling to fully recover. CNBC reported that compared to four years ago, national ticket sales are down by 21%. COVID-19 dealt a devastating blow to the “magic” of cinema that most are so familiar with — worries over falling ill, social distancing laws and restricted travel have led to most people avoiding theaters in entirety. 

A bigger antagonist sits behind all of this, one that has truly changed the shape of the media landscape. Its name strikes fear into the hearts of humble theaters across the nation: streaming services. With a variety of streaming platforms like Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix, which is currently home to 238.9 million users, one can access virtually any film in the world right from the comfort of their home. In addition to their wide variety, streaming services are also more cost-efficient than a trip to the theater, with a standard Netflix subscription only costing around $7 a month. Tickets aren’t the only issue — rental costs have also played a part in closures, even for theaters that are part of large chains. KTLA reported that a slew of Regal Cinemas were forced to close after Regal’s parent company, Cineworld, filed for bankruptcy following a 30% rent increase.

However, many have found a renewed love for going back to the theater, as Barbie and Oppenhiemer’s collective box office wins show. Sophomore advertising major Brianna Ammons considers going to the cinema to be a ritual. “I like going to the movie theater rather than using a streaming service because it’s more of an excuse to go out,” Ammons said. “I could totally just wait for the movie to show up on a streaming service, but the ritual of getting a little dressed up, getting candy from the gas station to sneak in, picking your seat, etc., is an exciting deviation from the norm sometimes.” 

Despite the closures of theaters like CineArts and Cinemark, San Francisco is still home to many historic theaters whose cultural significance cannot be replaced by a streaming service. Take the city’s oldest operating movie theater, The Roxie, which was built in 1912, for example. 

The city is also home to the Castro Theatre, which is an iconic historic venue for the LGBTQ+ community, as it hosts events such as Framline47, an 11-day international LGBTQ+ film festival. 

This summer’s “Barbenheimer” phenomenon was an important reminder that though streaming services are convenient, the experience of going to the movies is irreplaceable. Theaters around the city are working to keep the  magic of the cinema alive by hosting events that serve as a reminder of its communal significance. The Brava Theater for Women in the Arts is hosting a special screening of select arthouse films this Thursday in celebration of their 20th anniversary. Sundown Cinema is another movie event where screenings of popular films are held in San Francisco parks until October.


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