Despite Ownership Changes, Local Screens Seem Secure 

... At least for now. But merchants worry that parking problems will threaten the keystone of the city's downtown arts district

Such is the unstable nature of the movie exhibition business these days that when rumors began to circulate recently that Landmark's California theater in downtown Berkeley was about to close, people began to worry. Downtown observers have long known that the California is in dire need of an earthquake retrofit, and, with the recent bankruptcy of Landmark's owner, Silver Cinemas, it seemed like the California might go the way of its sister theater, the UC, which Landmark closed down several months ago after balking at the price of seismic work there. Downtown developers have eyed the California site for some time, toying with the possibility of converting the 1910-era building to housing, offices, or some mix of the two--with perhaps a cultural use thrown in. Things didn't look good for movie buffs.

But the California didn't close--and it may not do so anytime soon. The Landmark chain was purchased on May 25 by Oaktree Capital Management, and will now be headed up by two of the chain's former leaders, Paul Richardson and Bert Manzari. These two helped found the chain over twenty years ago along with East Bay businessman Gary Meyer, who remains a player in the Bay Area cinema scene. In fact, Meyer says he's working on a proposal to bring the UC Theatre back to life. With the new company's promise to address "deferred maintenance shortfalls" throughout the circuit, and downtown Berkeley could again be home to the 22 screens it has had for some years.

And that's good news for the many arts institutions--and the city itself--that have invested in Berkeley's much-heralded arts and theater district on Addison Street. "One of the reasons we decided to pursue an arts and theater district in downtown in the early '90s was that, after doing market research, we realized it was the best strategy to go with our strengths--and that's entertainment," explains Michael Caplan, who served as the Downtown Coordinator for the city's Office of Economic Development for much of the last decade. "We had 22 screens within five blocks; we had the Berkeley Rep and the Berkeley Community Theater, and we had the restaurants--this was the basis by which we are going to revitalize the downtown. The movie theaters were a fundamental ingredient." Movies draw people to the area, and the theaters are seen as anchor tenants, drawing a critical mass of evening visitors to support restaurants and other arts venues. In Berkeley, movie houses do well, too; the UC was the only downtown theater to close even in an era when theaters elsewhere--especially single-screen places like the UC--were shutting down left and right. "For distributors, downtown Berkeley is a much more appealing place for their films to play," says Meyer. "Downtown is the hub. My feeling is that at times downtown is even underscreened."

But there are still threats to the financial health of movie houses in downtown. With Signature Theaters' Jack London Cinema and United Artists' Emery Bay--not to mention a new ten-screen theater which may be built in Emeryville--observers like Meyer claim that a scarcity of parking in downtown Berkeley will give viewers more and more incentive to drive elsewhere for their weekend dose of celluloid and greasy popcorn. "Already a lot of people who live in Berkeley drive right through and go to Emeryville and Jack London because they don't like the parking situation," Meyer says. "It's a real concern. There are several garages that are going to be closed down at least temporarily, and if any two are down at the same time, it's truly a disaster."

Whether parking really is in short supply is a hotly debated question, of course; transit advocates like Councilmember Kriss Worthington and Planning Commission Chair Rob Wren argue that sufficient parking actually is available, but it's not well managed. They point to a recent city-sponsored study that argued that perceived parking problems could be solved by better management of parking through signs and a boost in the use of public transit. Merchants--and supporters such as Mayor Shirley Dean--counter that many customers simply prefer to drive, and the city would jeopardize its own investment in the arts district by not building new parking to accommodate the new audiences and diners they hope will soon flood the area.

Whatever the final resolution, concerns about parking haven't stopped the arts district yet, and plans for new venues--including, perhaps, a revitalized UC Theatre--continue to move forward. Meyer says he'd like to reopen the UC as a multiplex, with one large and two smaller screens, offering space not only for the kind of repertory films the UC was famous for but also, perhaps, room for musicals, live theater, or other fine arts. It's an idea that appeals to the city's current downtown coordinator, Ted Burton, who will work with Meyer to do a feasibility study. But Meyer warns that there could also be a struggle ahead: "It's only going to happen if everybody on the City Council can come together and not turn it into a political battle," he says. "I believe that the mayor and the city councilpeople are good people, but they often come at it from a different point of view."

There's one other possibility on the horizon that could not only help maintain downtown's movie screens but even up the ante considerably: the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive are still eyeing the possibility of setting up shop downtown. The museum's current building has been deemed seismically unsound, and the university owns a large parcel at Center and Oxford, where the university press is currently housed. Here, BAM/PFA associate director Stephen Gong says, the archive would love to build two screens. "We're very excited about that," he says. "We have long dreamed of having a second screen. We would have a larger theater, and then also a smaller one for an intimate setting for more challenging films." The museum might even stay open in the evening as an additional draw for downtown visitors. "We're enthusiastic," says Gong, but he adds that the move is by no means certain at this point. "We still have to do a lot of studies. We have tested other possibilities, and it looks like we're still in the lead."

As the arts district begins to really fill out (the Jazzschool has announced that it too will join the Addison Street bunch, which includes an expanded Berkeley Rep, the Aurora Theatre Company, Freight and Salvage, and Capoeira Cafe), city planners say they have no worries that their investment will pay off. The city has spent $5.5 million in loans and grants so far; says Burton, "There was a study done on the second stage of the Berkeley Rep alone, showing the amount of consumer spending that would be coming in, and it was very beneficial to the city." And Gong reflects that this kind of critical mass--especially if it did include another repertory movie house like a revitalized UC--would take on a life of its own. "Berkeley is one of the most sophisticated audiences around," he says. "We think having more choices just makes the community more healthy."


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