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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The saga of San Francisco's Roxie Cinema

Ryan Blitstein has this week's cover story in the SF Weekly, about the near-death and pending rebirth of the Roxie Cinema, one of the country's leading truly independent art houses. (There's a companion theater, the Little Roxie, two doors down that screens just video.) Roxie founder Bill Banning also ran a small distribution business on the side for many years, releasing movies like "Genghis Blues" and "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh."

Blitstein writes:

    Over three decades, the Roxie has become a mythical institution within the San Francisco film scene, screening artistic, risk-taking movies that most local theaters wouldn't. Banning is lionized by local media as the hard-fighting and enduring champion of independent film battling corporatized, faux art-house chains such as Landmark Theatres. The Roxie's mounting debt is portrayed as a badge of honor, not an embarrassment, neglecting the true stories of dozens of struggling independent filmmakers and distributors who count themselves among the theater's horde of angry creditors.

    In a last-ditch attempt to save his beloved institution, Banning finally gave up managerial control in December. New College of California absorbed the theater into its nonprofit charter, with ex-San Francisco Business Times reporter Allyce Bess becoming executive director. These inexperienced new owners must persuade irate distributors and filmmakers who have been burned by Banning to screen there again. They'll also have to confront economic changes threatening the very existence of independent art-house theaters, and learn from scratch how to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for an organization with a shoddy financial past.

    Banning sees the plan as the panacea that will keep the Roxie alive. Unfortunately, this picture isn't guaranteed to have a happy ending.

(Photo of Bill Banning by James Sanders.)