In what must surely be the most celebratory news of 2011 for Bay Area cinephiles, the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) announced last week that it will be partnering with Japantown's chic subterranean movie house, the New People Cinema. What this means is that for the first time in its 54-year history, SFFS will finally have a year-round exhibition venue it can call home. The news comes nearly a year after Landmark Theaters declared its intention to shutter the Clay Theater, which sparked months of negotiations by the SFFS to purchase or lease it. Those negotiations broke down over a number of issues, including the landlord's insistence that condos be built on top of the nearly century-old cinema. (Interestingly, the Clay remains in operation as a Landmark Theater today).
Despite my fondness for the Clay—it was the first San Francisco movie theater I visited upon moving here in 1975 (and the film I saw was Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away)—I'm thrilled that SFFS has landed the New People. As stated in the official SFFS press release, it's "San Francisco's most up-to-date and technically perfect film theater" featuring the "highest quality analog and digital equipment, great sight lines and immersive THX-certified surround sound." Also known as VIZ Cinema, the 143-seat facility is located in the basement of Japantown's New People Building at 1746 Post Street, itself a "cutting-edge four-story building devoted to contemporary Japanese art, fashion, food and design." I love that they sell Blue Bottle coffee in the café and I dig their futuristic toilets.
New People, SFFS and local cinephiles are anything but strangers to each other. The theater hosted the Film Society's Taiwan Film Days last autumn and served as an additional venue for the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. The SF International Asian American Film Festival has used the space for two years running and 3rd i's South Asian Film Fest had their 2010 opening night there. Since arriving on the Bay Area film scene in 2009, New People has also programmed its own regular line-up of Japanese repertory mixed with new releases (mostly genre and anime). In recent months, however, that programming has slowed considerably. Excepting benefit screenings for Japanese earthquake / tsunami victims and a few festival rentals, the theater has too often gone dark. Partnering with SFFS will clearly be a boon for New People as well.
The SFFS / New People Cinema is scheduled to debut in September, with initial offerings to be announced just before Labor Day. In addition to accommodating panels, classes and one-time events, the press release states that a "substantial portion" of the SFFS Fall Season will take place there. I'm wondering if that includes French Cinema Now, New Italian Cinema and the International Animation festivals, which are traditionally housed in the considerably larger, 272-seat Theater One of Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema?
By far, the most exciting aspect of the SFFS / New People partnership will be the re-emergence of the SFFS Screen. Launched in 2008 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas—home of the Film Society's SF International Film Festival and located just down the street from New People—the SFFS Kabuki Screen hosted week-long theatrical runs of foreign, indie and documentary films that had screened at local festivals. More importantly, it also premiered important works that had never been seen in the Bay Area, period, such as Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys and Elia Suleiman's The Time That Remains.
Unfortunately, during its roughly three-year existence the SFFS Screen spent more time "on hiatus" than it did being operational, due to the vagaries of screen availability at the Kabuki. Now that SFFS has its very own cinema to program, I anticipate seeing many of the limited-distribution titles I jealously notate opening in Manhattan cinemas each week (reviews of which get skillfully compiled on Fridays by David Hudson at MUBI Notebook). Here's my starter wishlist of recent films I'd love to see booked into the new SFFS / New People Cinema: Kôji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, Daniel and Diego Vega Vidal's October and Michael Rowe's Leap Year.
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.