Walking through downtown Berkeley these days feels like a self-guided tour of blank marquees. Since October 2021, the area has lost three movie theaters — Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas and California Theatre, and the Regal UA.
On June 15, Landmark’s Albany Twin closed too.
Cinemas have faced obvious hurdles in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic first forced the temporary closure of all theaters, and now seems to have fundamentally altered many people’s moviegoing habits. The proliferation of online streaming services — many releasing films on-demand within weeks of their theatrical debuts, if not simultaneously —provides additional competition.
The rash of closures to the north has made some Oakland moviegoers wonder if our city’s theaters are headed for the same fate. The Oaklandside checked in with Oakland’s theaters to see how they’re faring and whether cinemaphiles should be bracing for bad news.
Piedmont Theatre is “holding its own”
The 106-year-old Piedmont Theatre is Oakland’s oldest movie house. Since 1994, it’s been operated by West Hollywood-based Landmark Theatres, which is known for showing independent and art-house films along with big-budget hits.
The closure of three Landmark locations in Berkeley and Albany makes Piedmont the company’s only remaining East Bay theater.
How’s business? “It’s doing fine,” said Mark Mulcahy, Landmark’s head of brand and marketing. Asked if Landmark has plans to close the site, he said, “Absolutely not.”
“It’s doing as well as any theater in the circuit; it’s holding its own,” Mulcahy said. But he emphasized that “every theater post-pandemic, like many businesses, has been impacted. It’s consistent throughout the industry.”
In 2022, U.S. and Canada movie theaters grossed $7.5 billion, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. In 2019, they made $11.4 billion.
Mulcahy said the Piedmont Theatre has a “better rent situation” than some of their other locations where landlords have recently declined to renew leases. He didn’t elaborate but said that lease circumstances are a “huge consideration” when determining the future potential of a Landmark location like Piedmont. In Berkeley, the California Theatre’s property owners have said that Landmark stopped paying rent there just before the pandemic got underway.
Amid the closures, Landmark also recently began operating a new site, taking over a shuttered AMC theater on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The company opened with an “immersive experience” designed around Wes Anderson’s new film “Asteroid City.” The theater was converted into a version of the fictional town in the movie, which audience members could interact with and take pictures of before settling in to watch the show.
The event blew through box-office records, Mulcahy said. These engaging experiences “resonate with consumers and really help,” he said, adding that retro film showing and filmmaker-focused series are also “huge moneymakers.” Landmark will soon begin offering a loyalty program for frequent viewers.
Grand Lake is slowly improving
Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre has long been in the events business. The theater, with its iconic facade, frequently hosts red-carpet premieres, private events, political fundraisers, and comedy shows.
Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake, said, “We like being out of the box and not just being a movie house.” But screening films is still the core business, and “we try to have the absolute best projection and sound.”
“We’re slowly seeing box office attendance improve, though not to pre-pandemic levels,” Michaan said. “The biggest disappointment we see is a lack of longevity.” It’s common for a movie to open with huge audience numbers, and then drop 50% the second week and even more the following.
“It used to be that when a film came out, and it turned out to be really popular, it could play for months,” Michaan said. “That just doesn’t exist anymore, and it really hurts. People are now in the habit of, ‘We’ll see it on our 75-inch flat screen TV in two months.’”
The 2022 Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was an aberration, playing for six or eight weeks.
Overall revenue has plummeted, Michaan said. The several Oakland-related movies that came out in 2018—”Black Panther,” “Blind Spotting,” and “Sorry to Bother You”—made that the highest-grossing year for the theater ever. Last year, Grand Lake made half of that, according to Michaan.
Younger audiences are returning to the theater, Michaan said. But the ongoing pandemic is dissuading some older and at-risk viewers from choosing to sit inside for two hours, next to people chowing down on popcorn and candy.
Mulcahy of Landmark said employees are “allowed to wear masks” but not required to, in compliance with the end of state mandates.
One thing insulates the Grand Lake from some of the precarity at similar theaters: Michaan owns the building. No unexpected rent hikes or evictions are on the horizon.
Michaan acquired the ground lease for the 1926 theater in 1979 when he was in his 20s, and over the years majorly expanded and revamped it. A few years ago, he purchased the property. Now, he’s working on a full restoration of the famous roof sign.
The New Parkway is looking to expand
J Moses Ceaser voiced a sentiment rarely heard in the movie theater business these days: hope.
“I’m actually relatively optimistic about the future of theaters that are community spaces, that are doing a good job of what they do,” said the general manager of the New Parkway Theater. Ceaser opened the Uptown site in 2012, with the help of a crowdfunding campaign, as an homage to the shuttered Parkway Speakeasy Theater.
“As a small business entrepreneur, you always have to be trying out new things, staying relevant, and becoming more relevant, to keep your head above water,” Ceaser said.
That ethos is on display at the New Parkway, which hosts regular trivia nights, a weekly Drink and Draw event, “speed meeting,” and Karma Cinema, where moviegoers pay what they want and a portion of the proceeds goes to a rotating cast of community organizations. The theater also screens sporting events like Warriors and World Cup games and offers birthday parties. The seating is an eccentric collection of comfortable couches and even decommissioned salon chairs in lieu of small, fold-down theater seats. A full menu of drinks and meals is on offer.
(The Oaklandside’s quarterly Culture Makers event takes place at the New Parkway.)
During the early months of the pandemic, the theater pivoted to a food pickup and delivery service. Now, there are signs that movie audiences are back.
“May and June have felt like the first months that have felt similar to decently busy times before the pandemic,” Ceaser said. But he noted that the movie business inherently “ebbs and flows” based on what’s showing and the weather. It’s too early to tell whether this trend will continue—or whether to credit the mega-blockbuster “Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse” for the uptick this spring.
The New Parkway is no stranger to some of the challenges others are confronting for the first time. There are only two screens, and often the theater can only access second-run movies. They rely on the communal atmosphere to bring people out to pay for something they could catch on a streaming service instead.
As other local theaters close, the New Parkway sees an opening.
“We are trying to find a location in downtown Berkeley,” said Ceaser. Although there’s a steadily growing supply of vacant movie houses, large industrial spaces fit the New Parkway model better, he said. He believes a crowdfunding campaign, like the one that launched the current theater, would be successful in Berkeley too.
The Oaklandside reached out to Oakland’s fourth theater, the Regal Jack London, but was not able to reach the company. When Regal’s parent company closed the Berkeley UA theater in January, it was one of 39 theaters Cineworld shuttered in the U.S. as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
All three theater operators who spoke with The Oaklandside have maintained a romanticism about going to the movies despite the hardship. They believe everything is better on the big screen, and watched in community.
“It’s about escapism,” Mulcahy said. “If you’re sitting on your couch, you’re going to have a computer, a cellphone, a dog barking. That’s not a night out.”
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