This source puts the construction of the Sundance Kabuki as early as 1968. Jack Tillmany's book Theatres of San Francisco lists the build as in "the 1970s", and says that AMC took over and renovated the theater in 1986, expanding it from one to eight screens, then known as the Kabuki 8. It was here that I saw most movies during my college years, visiting the theater at least twenty-eight times from Apollo 13 in 1995 to The Rage: Carrie 2 in 1999 (and only three times since).
When the theater converted into a multiplex as part of AMC's nationwide expansion (source: Wikipedia) it likely changed the exhibition landscape in San Francisco. For the ten years prior to 1984 (when the four-screen United Artists Galaxy opened), approximately eight San Francisco theaters closed. For the ten years beginning in 1984, at least sixteen theaters shut down. That's a vicious doubling.
From what I understand of the early days of movie exhibition, theaters have always been cutthroat, using whatever gimmicks they could to lure in customers, from glitzy signs and standees to curbside contests and piping out the audio from the movie for those still waiting in line. In San Francisco's burgeoning Market Street theater scene, in the years following the 1906 earthquake and fire, new movie palaces seemingly appeared and disappeared overnight. When discussing the fate of the California, Tillmany says it was "stranded in a location that was just a little too far outside the theater 'district'" (42). Location has always been key; fortunes turned on being at the center of the scene. So too have distribution rights played their part. Tillmany says that beginning in the 1950s, movies began going straight to the neighborhood theaters, like the Coronet, so audiences no longer needed to schlep all the way down to Market to see the latest.
But whatever movement was toward the neighborhoods has recently been reversed, as the city's screens have been marching eastward for the past two decades, showing that circuits like AMC and Regal are still more concerned with location than with maintaining existing theaters. The same went for smaller entrepreneurs back in the day, who would sometimes open one theater, only to move to a new location within a year. But I begrudge the circuits more, since they have the financial backing to be a bit more flexible. AMC cannibalized its ticket sales at the Kabuki 8 by building the AMC 1000 just a few blocks away. When AMC merged with Loews, it dumped the Kabuki 8 in favor of keeping the newer Metreon. With Cinemark's San Francisco Centre 9 just a block away, Market is once again king. (Those two theaters alone account for 31% of San Francisco's eighty first-run screens.)
In March, 2006 the Kabuki was purchased by Sundance Cinemas (source: The Hollywood Reporter), saving it from oblivion. Sundance Cinemas owns one other theater, in Madison, Wisconsin. They have transformed the Kabuki into an eclectic multiplex, showing both mainstream and independent films, just as the Shattuck does in Berkeley.
I've taken what photos I can, but better photos are available here.
The outside of the building looks as it always has, like a convention center or a giant terrarium. Inside, though, the theater has been transformed from minimal and functional to busy and decorative. The addition of bamboo trees to the lobby, and a wooden façade above the box office, create a unique atmosphere for the entry way. It's a strange cross between hotel, restaurant, and Jungle Ride. A glass elevator to the side of the box office allows wheelchair accessibility to the auditoriums on levels two and three.
Tickets can be purchased at the box office, or at electronic kiosks to the side. There are two unusual qualities about Kabuki tickets. First, all seating is reserved. When you purchase a ticket you will be presented with a seating chart for your auditorium, and be able to select from among the remaining available seats. My friend Russel, whom I met at the Embarcadero, described a phenomenon by which reserved seating only prolonged the distraction of patrons entering the theater late; since they are assured of their seat, why hurry? I noticed another pattern. When selecting from the seating chart, and not knowing whether a showing will be packed or not, naturally one picks the best seats. The result: in our sparsely populated auditorium, which seats 178, twenty of us were crammed into three rows, all sitting next to each other. Very strange.
The next thing you'll notice at the box office is the high price of luxury film going. Tickets are $11, plus an amenities fee of $1.50-$3.00, depending on the night of your visit. On a Friday or Saturday night, therefore, tickets will run you $14 each (+$2.75 for 3D movies). Over a decade ago I read an interview with George Lucas where he estimated that, between a baby sitter, gas, parking, dinner, tickets, and snacks, a night out at the movies would cost a couple $100. The Kabuki is going to keep as much of that money as they can.
There are several other ways to spend money at the Kabuki beside the box office. On the second floor, where all the fun begins, they have a traditional concession stand, though they offer some gourmet candies (e.g. jelly beans in a plastic tub), cupcakes, cookies, and some actual food. Food. I bought a vegan wrap filled with all kinds of marinated goodness; it was more than I could eat in a single sitting, and it was delicious. How refreshing to eat something other than Red Vines for dinner. By the way, when the concession stand swipes your ATM card, your transaction is completed immediately. No PIN entry, no confirmation, no waiting for an uplink, no receipt. So make sure you're really ready to check out.
Next to the concession stand are the entrances to auditorium 2 and the orchestra seating for auditorium 1. I believe that after the Castro, the Kabuki's main auditorium is the second largest in the city, seating a total of 509.
Turn right and what was once a long, boring hallway is now funville for adults. The theater has no arcade, doesn't display standees, tucks away movie posters, and has several auditoriums that are 21 and over. You could still bring your kid here, but the theater is designed with segregation in mind, so that city-savvy adults looking for a night out on the town can visit the Kabuki as if it were a night club. As you ascend into the theater's upper levels, age restrictions weed out children and students (a far cry from when I visited the theater in college), and prices discourage anyone not wearing a a leather jacket. What you end up with, on a Friday night, is a young (affluent?) hipster crowd. The place was packed.
The hallways display large works of painted art and metal calligraphy etchings. Soft seating invites people to just hang out, but Bar Bistro is the place to be (that's such a generic name, I must be misreading, but I think I'm right). After an ID check patrons can sit at cafe-style tables that extend into the hallway, and enjoy one of many alcoholic beverages. (You can take your drink with you into several of the auditoriums, some of which have an additional bar immediately outside their doors in case you run dry mid-movie.) I don't drink alcohol, but I can appreciate how this atmosphere elevates the theater from movie house to social destination.
Just inside the Bar Bistro is a full restaurant, with seating off the beaten path where patrons can enjoy their food in the dimly lit room while looking out over the lobby, and through the theater's glass front out to the city beyond. There are other treats to come, but this arrangement is just brilliant (assuming you're willing to pay for brilliance). Different from the few theaters that bring you food to your auditorium seats, here you can have date night all in one building, first meeting up for drinks at a bar, progressing to a quiet dinner in an elegant setting, capped off by a movie without any noisy teens (though perhaps with a lot of drunken twenty-somethings). This isn't quite my scene, but I'm impressed nonetheless. Between the Bar Bistro and Sundance Kitchen, you can order such delights as (and I'm focusing just on the vegetarian options here) a mediterranean plate ($12.95), focaccia caprese ($10.95), edamame with garlic ($5.95), baby beet salad ($8.95), wild mushroom pizza ($11.95), and apple cobbler ($4.95). As a vegan, I'd be restricted to the edamame, so this really isn't the place for me. But for other folks, including vegetarians? Sure. (That is, assuming you aren't repulsed by the smells of ten different animals being roasted, you barbarian.)
On the upper level there is yet another bar (pictured below), just outside the entrance to auditorium 1's balcony seating. From here you have an even better view looking out to the city. Assuming you've brought gold bullion with your for payment, the Kabuki is committed to getting you sloshed and keeping you sloshed, with zero downtime.
Auditoriums range in size from 57 to 178 seats (excluding the main auditorium, which seats 327 downstairs and 182 upstairs). The theater has a total seating capacity of 1384, making it the fourth or fifth largest in the city, behind the Metreon, AMC 1000, Castro, and perhaps the San Francisco Centre 9. Auditorium walls have a yellow, spaghetti pattern that shimmer from a distance. The seats are comfortable, though there is too much padding in the lower back. (If Mrs. Cartner couldn't give me good posture in the fifth grade, does the Kabuki really think it's going to change me?)
The Kabuki is host to the nation's longest-running film festival, the San Francisco International Film Festival, coming up the last week of April and first week of May. I'm keeping a tally of how many different movies each theater shows this year, and the SFIFF could put the Kabuki back in the running with the Castro. In addition to special programming around the festival, the Kabuki also has Q&As for other special engagements, such as for La Mission.
The Kabuki features live bands on Friday and Saturday nights (I didn't see them on my visit, but the place was so crowded and noisy, they could have been playing right behind me and I wouldn't have noticed).
Benjamin Bratt is a native of San Francisco's Mission District, "trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents". He's macho, enjoys cruising in low riders, and flips out when he discovers his son is gay. This movie has three things going for it and one against. Pro: Benjamin Bratt (good looking and he knows it), cool cars, and San Francisco. Con: do I really want to watch a movie about a father rejecting his son because of who his son is attracted to? 108 cuts.
I've been reserving my five-star ratings for those few movies that are so good I want to add them to my home collection. I'm not sure that I want to own Chloe, but every scene fascinated me. It doesn't hurt that Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried are beautiful and unclothed for much of the movie.
Catherine Stewart (Moore) plans a surprise birthday party for her husband, David (Liam Neeson). David disappoints Catherine by conveniently missing his flight (and therefore the party). When Catherine finds a picture on David's cell phone that suggests he not only missed his flight but also went out for drinks with a young woman, Catherine's ire at her husband's insensitivity is transformed into suspicion of his fidelity. Leveraging a chance encounter with a high class call girl, Chloe (Seyfried), Catherine pays Chloe to attempt to seduce her husband, to see if he responds.
At first, Catherine is conducting a clinical experiment. When given the opportunity to cheat, will her husband cheat? The results come back positive. Like any good scientist, Catherine then repeats the experiment. Chloe reports back to Catherine after each encounter with David, recounting their actions in steady, blunt detail. She makes a story of it, describing the setting, the sequence of events, who said what or did what, creating suspense. Catherine only slightly resists being drawn into the narrative, because soon it serves as a surrogate experience between Catherine and David. When David touches Chloe, Catherine's instrument, it is as if he reaches across the cold years of their marriage and touches Catherine also. Chloe, for her part, seems more interested in Catherine than in David. We aren't given much backstory, but we may infer that Chloe feels as emotionally isolated in her line of work, always sleeping with different men, as Catherine does in her marriage with David.
The set design suggests that Catherine's life is sterile. Her house is enormous, but emotionally vacant. At work, where she is a gynecologist, patients can look through a glass wall directly into her barren office. The movie takes place during winter, and everything in Catherine's life is chilly, including her relationships with others (her husband, her teenaged son, and even Chloe). Stranded in this vacuum, Catherine reaches desperately for affection. When Catherine and Chloe slowly begin to push the boundaries of their relationship, what could have been kinky in a lesser film instead comes across here as desperate lunges fueled by loneliness.
The movie knows it has two beauties for its stars. When it isn't focusing on the rest of their bodies, the film zeroes in on their eyes. In shot after shot Catherine is looking at David, or Catherine at Chloe, or Chloe at Catherine. Their faces are intensely expressive, yet difficult to comprehend. Is Catherine lustful or disgusted by Chloe? Does Chloe love Catherine, or is this just a game to her? I couldn't tear my eyes away.