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More details emerge on what San Francisco’s changing Castro Theatre will look like after renovations

SF Gate logo SF Gate 3/20/2022 Amanda Bartlett

More details have been revealed on what the changing Castro Theatre might look like after San Francisco’s last classic movie palace undergoes renovations slated for later this fall. 

Another Planet Entertainment, which announced its unexpected partnership with the historical venue and city landmark in January, filed the proposal with the San Francisco Planning Department last week, chief of staff Dan Sider confirmed with SFGATE on Thursday. 

Plans include taking out all of the theater’s existing floor seats and replacing them with four tiered sections intended for standing room only, though the theater plans to implement removable seats that can be taken in and out of the auditorium as needed, much like the current layout of the Fox Theater in Oakland, Another Planet spokesperson David Perry told SFGATE on Friday. The theater’s fixed seating in the balcony will remain the same, though he added it has “long been in need of improvement” and will likely see some upgrades alongside the venue's legendary marquee. 

“We don't yet have the final designs, but the footprint of the Castro interior will not change drastically,” said Perry.  

The Fox was also a former movie house — albeit one that was devoid of audiences for more than four decades as opposed to a year and some change — before it was transformed into a live music venue by Another Planet as part of a $73 million renovation in 2008. Previously, the historical space has used fold-out chairs on the ground floor for hybrid events, but Perry said Another Planet is in the early stages of sourcing new seats and is “looking at a number of flexible seating options to find the most comfortable and adaptable options.” 

What will happen to the old seats? Will they be donated to another theater? Perry doesn’t have a clear answer yet, and said that plans for storage of the new seating are still being arranged. However, he said he does not anticipate that the capacity of the 1,400-seat-venue will change. 

More noticeable modifications inside the theater include the concession stand in the main lobby, which will be replaced with two concession stands at the rear of the orchestra level, while a third concession stand will be added to the mezzanine, according to the proposal. Another Planet will “significantly upgrade the level and types” of snacks offered, which will be announced at a later date, said Perry. The basement will also be refurbished with what planning documents describe as a “program space,” but Perry clarified that it won’t be used for events — rather, the former boiler room will be converted to a new dressing room and an ADA-accessible bathroom.

Union Square-based architecture firm Page & Turnbull will oversee the project, which is pending approval from the Historic Preservation Commission. A total estimated cost for the renovations has yet to be determined, Perry said.  

The suggested alterations to the layout of the building appear to reflect the Berkeley-based concert production company’s original plans to transform it into a flexible event space where concerts, comedy, and other live entertainment can be presented alongside the film festivals and repertory cinema the theater is known for. But they also contrast Another Planet Entertainment CEO Gregg Perloff’s initial comments that most of the changes, such as upgrades to lighting and electricity, would not be noticeable to the average patron, and continue to raise questions about how much film will be prioritized, some members of the community said. 

“The Castro is one of the best movie theaters in the world, and I'm upset that some of the proposed changes will make it worse as a cinema,” said Kristin Lipska, a San Francisco-based archivist who has regularly attended movies at the theater since she moved to the city in 2007. 

Lipska believes that plans to remove the theater’s orchestra-level seating with tiered sections will “diminish the viewing experience for any event," while the screenings and film festivals that do continue to go on at the theater will be compromised and further take a back seat to other live events. 

“The Castro's raked floor gives every seat a good view,” Lipska said. “Replacing the raked floor with flat tiers ruins the good sightlines just so they can prioritize live music events.”

Brian Darr, a library technical assistant at City College of San Francisco and a past volunteer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, SFFILM and CAAMFest, raised concerns over whether festivals would have to pay for the labor to set up the removable seating on the ground floor of the theater.

“Does [the Castro] expect that this will cut down on bookings from festivals and organizations that have traditionally only been able to afford to book the space for one night at a time, like the Arab Film Festival or Cinema Italia?” he said.

Darr also wondered how the theater might refine its projection capabilities to show movies in 35mm and 70mm.

“It was almost always popular — huge turnouts for ‘Vertigo,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ [and] ‘The Master,’” Darr said. “If a festival wanted to show ‘Playtime’ or ‘Tron’ or the original ‘West Side Story’ in 70mm would they be able to?”

Perry said he is aware of concerns related to the proposed seating and the visibility of the screen, and that the Castro Theatre is “doing sightline studies right now to ensure optimal viewing for films.” He also said the venue is “very sensitive to the needs and budgets” of the various film festivals and community organizations that call it home, and that it plans to negotiate setup and breakdown costs for events on a case-by-case basis. He added that the theater won’t remove its projectors and is currently “doing extensive service on them right now with certified specialists.” 

Both Lipska and Darr were troubled by the new concession stand on the upper level and whether its location inside the theater would be disruptive to future screenings. In response, Perry stressed that concession staffing and operations would be timed so as not to interrupt with film screenings.

But perhaps the main topic of concern in the Castro Theatre’s transitional period has been the preservation of treasured facets like its live organ and sing-along events, as well as its commitment to LGBTQ programming and the regularity with which director-focused double features and other repertory film — not just film festivals — would continue to be shown. Perry said they will all still be part of the Castro Theatre’s event slate under Another Planet Entertainment, but added that they won’t be able to confirm the frequency of each type of event.

“After the renovation is complete, and we have a better sense of programming opportunities, we will be able to answer that question more accurately,” Perry said. “The Castro is sacred to the LGBTQ and also film communities and we share and celebrate that legacy. Our ongoing one-on-one dialogues with LGBTQ community members and groups is helping us put together a programming schedule that will allow us to expand our offerings.” 

The Castro Theatre recently hosted Berlin & Beyond Film Festival and a sold-out live event with podcaster Jon Lovett ("Pod Save America," "Lovett or Leave It.")

The San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a concert produced by FolkYeah featuring Bay Area-born psychedelic folk artist Grouper, and Frameline Film Festival will be held at the venue in the coming months prior to the scheduled renovation. 

 This is a developing story and will be updated with more information as it becomes available.

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