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A fight over seats could define the future of an iconic San Francisco movie theater

Exterior of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Live concert and comedy company, Another Planet Entertainment (APE), recently took over the historic movie theater's lease.
Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images
Exterior of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Live concert and comedy company, Another Planet Entertainment (APE), recently took over the historic movie theater's lease.

If the Castro Theatre didn't exist, then neither would Sophia Padilla.

"I always joke that I was conceived at the Castro Theatre," said the San Francisco resident, who happened to be passing by the iconic, 100-year-old movie palace on a recent afternoon while out walking her dog.

Padilla said her parents first met in line to see a movie at the theater, 27 years ago.

"Both of them were on dates with other people, actually," Padilla said. "They fell in love right here. And I've been coming to the Castro to see movies for my entire 26-year life."

Padilla also said the Castro Theatre played a role in recognizing her queer identity.

"The Castro really helped me find who I was," she said.

San Francisco resident and movie fan Sophia Padilla poses outside the Castro Theatre with her dog.
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
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Chloe Veltman/NPR
San Francisco resident and movie fan Sophia Padilla poses outside the Castro Theatre with her dog.

Located in the heart of one of the country's most high-profile LGBTQ neighborhoods, the Castro Theatre, which has been owned by the same family since 1922, has long been a bastion of queer cinema and community events.

Highlights include the first ever public screening of the 2008 movie Milk about the pioneering openly gay politician Harvey Milk, the annual Frameline queer movie festival, and an abundance of drag performance nights.

"The Castro Theatre is like a sacred temple for the community," said Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board member Jesse Sanford. "It's where we gather to laugh together, cry together, learn our history and mourn our losses."

The venue has also hosted major film festivals like the San Francisco International Film Festival and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

But the recent takeover of the theater's lease by Another Planet Entertainment — which operates and programs a handful of mostly music-oriented venues and festivals around the San Francisco Bay Area — has led to a struggle for the theater's future.

"Another Planet's plan will mean that films rarely get shown, and community events rarely happen," said Sanford.

Conservationists push back

The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is one of several local groups pushing back against Another Planet's plans to refocus the venue's programming and make sweeping renovations.

"This is a hundred-year-old theater. You can't just change it any way you want," said Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a group that was formed three years ago to address concerns about the increasingly dilapidated state of the building.

Castro Theatre Conservancy executive director Peter Pastreich at the Castro Theatre.
/ Chloe Veltman/NPR
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Chloe Veltman/NPR
Castro Theatre Conservancy executive director Peter Pastreich at the Castro Theatre.

Pastreich said his group welcomes some of the proposed upgrades, such as putting in wheelchair access and a new HVAC system — as well as touching up the interior's grand mural'd walls, chandeliers and leather-effect ceiling. He estimates renovating the theater would cost $20-30 million.

"We aren't opposed to Another Planet or anybody else who will renovate the theater and keep it open," Pastreich said.

It all comes down to the seating

The activists' primary point of contention is the operator's plans for the theater's seating.

"The plans are to take out the seats and level the floor, which would make the theater no longer appropriate for movies," Pastreich says.

Thousands of people — including many celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola, Alice Waters and Tilda Swinton — have signed the conservancy's petition to prevent Another Planet's renovations from going ahead.

The building is already in part protected. The City of San Francisco gave landmark status to the exterior in 1977. Now these activists are trying to get the city to expand the designation to include the building's interior. If that happens, it will be much harder for the leaseholder to rip out the theater's 1,400 seats and flatten the floor.

The Castro Theatre's interior.
/ Andrew Rosas
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Andrew Rosas
The Castro Theatre's interior.

"Changing the seating is a big deal," said Matt Lambros, a Boston-based photographer of historic movie theaters who has written several books on the topic. "You could ruin the sight-lines."

There are a few thousand old, single-screen movie palaces like the Castro still in operation in the U.S. today, down from tens of thousands in their pre-World-War-II heyday.

Lambros said in order for these cinemas to survive, the seating has to do more than accommodate movie-goers.

"There's interest in restoring these places," he said. "The issue is, you have to find something that will bring people. For the most part, unfortunately, a 1500-or 2000-seat theater showing films, that's just not viable."

Those who want the theater's seating plan to remain intact point out that the Castro has hosted all kinds of non-movie events over the years.

"It is possible to have the theater be conducive to movie-going and concert-going and comedy and spoken word presentations and community meetings," said San Francisco Silent Film Festival director Anita Monga. "All of that is possible with the existing seats and same configuration."

Another Planet pushes ahead

Another Planet spokesman, Alex Tourk, said, despite its plan to remove the movie-style seating, the company is committed to honoring the theater's legacy. "They absolutely want to continue to show film," Tourk said. "They committed to making sure that 25% of programming would be dedicated to the LGBTQ community."

He said the company has been shocked by the effort these groups have mounted to preserve the theater, given the company's solid reputation as a concert and festival producer. Its plan is to invest $15 million in renovating the theater.

"Another Planet will continue to work with the city to find consensus and move the vision forward," said Tourk. "Another Planet did expect some opposition," he said. "But the level of vitriol has been beyond the pale."

The family that owns the theater, the Nassers, did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.