Historic California Theater permanently closed after refusal to renew lease
High school student Ryland Walker Knight sat on the edge of his seat, eyes wide open at the movie screen in front of him. Struck by the beauty of the production, he dragged his friend to the California Theater in Berkeley for the second screening of “Inland Empire” in two days.
Today, filmmaker Knight is both shocked and saddened to learn that Landmark’s California Theater will close permanently due to the owner’s decision to put the renewal of his rental agreement on hold at the property on Shattuck Avenue and Oxford.
Upon hearing the news, Knight felt instant nostalgia for the high school years spent attending films such as “Inland Empire”, “Pulp Fiction”, “12 Monkeys” and “Eyes Wide Shut”.
The California Theater has been temporarily closed since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Landmark Theaters vice president of marketing and advertising Margot Gerber.
Vaccination deployments have slowed the opening of in-person theaters, Gerber noted. Due to mask restrictions and limited consumer demand, Landmark Theaters has decided to open its theater venues in waves from August 2020.
“Our model of reopening theaters had a lot to do with the fact that we didn’t want an area on-screen,” Gerber said. “If we had, and in many cases we had more than one theater that was really close to each other, we just opened the one to concentrate the business that existed in one of the theaters.”
According to Gerber, Berkeley’s Shattuck Theaters opened first for their larger nine-screen capacity. Landmark Theaters also intended to reopen the California Theater, but was limited by the external rental agreement.
Since Landmark Theaters does not own the land on which its theaters operate, it depends on external contracts with the landowners. Some of these landowners have reassessed their priorities for rented properties after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gerber.
“We’re sad to lose a theater that’s been part of our chain for a long time, but because we don’t own these buildings, we’re at the mercy of the owners and what they want to do with the properties,” Gerber said. .
Knight described the theater as classic. Built as a performance hall in 1913, the California Theater was taken over by Landmark Theaters in 1994. Originally a single screen, the historic theater has been adapted to fit three screens in recent years.
The changes to the theater reflect a long history of Berkeley, as well as an emblem of the future.
“I’m afraid going to the movies is getting more and more rare,” Knight said. “I hope I am wrong.”
The loss of the Berkeley monument reflects a changing culture of film screenings, according to associate professor of film and media Jeffrey Skoller. Theater closures have increased exponentially due to home streaming and the city’s gentrification, Skoller noted.
According to Skoller, the economic stress facing independent theaters calls for reform.
“For independent and neighborhood films to survive and continue to contribute to the cultural life of the city, they must be redesigned as non-profit cultural spaces and subsidized by (the) city,” Skoller said in an e- mail. “These cinemas are social spaces and this is the real future of cinema.”
Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @ lilybutton27.