Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain

The Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue has gone dark once again.

Nine months ago, five men from India formed a group to take over the theater and bring in first-run films and Bollywood extravaganzas and serve dinner and drinks. Few of those plans came to fruition and the group, Merriment Media, stopped showing films shortly before Christmas.

“We weren’t able to meet our monthly expenses,” said Rama Sagiraji, who managed the theater for the group based near San Jose.

John Gordon, the commercial property developer and realtor who owns the Oaks Theatre, served notice to the group in early December that it was in default of its lease since it hadn’t paid rent in three months, he said. While running an independent movie theater is a tough business, the Oaks failed because Merriment Media did not follow through on any of its turnaround plans, according to Gordon.

“He (Rama Sagiraji) came in with promises,” said Gordon. “He was going to do one screen for foreign films, one screen for first-run films. He was going to serve food and get a beer and wine license. At the end of the day he did nothing. It was mismanaged and underfunded and I felt lied to in the whole process.”

After talking briefly with Berkeleyside, Sagiraji asked that any questions be sent to him via email. He had not responded by press time.

Gordon said he is committed to retaining the space as an entertainment center and will seek out a new group to run the theater. He hopes he can bring someone in to show movies, but if not, he will consider live theater or other possibilities.

“My goal is to find another movie theater operator who has business connections in the movie industry and who can bring (first-run) films here,” said Gordon.

The movie business is very competitive and large chains like United Artists and Landmark usually get the best films, said Gordon. They can tell Pixar, for example, that they will put Toy Story 3 on a number of screens in downtown Berkeley. It is hard for an independent theater like the Oaks to compete with that. That’s why connections in the movie business are so important, said Gordon.

The Oaks opened in 1925 and was designed by Reid Brothers, who also designed Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, as well as Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. In 1973, the theater was divided into two screens. Renaissance Rialto Theaters ran the Oaks’ operations from 1994 until 2005, when Metropolitan Theaters Corporation of Los Angeles took over. That company declined to renew its lease in 2010, and Merriment Media took over in April.

The closure of the Oaks leaves the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on College Avenue as the only independent movie theater in Berkeley.

Interested in issues surrounding running a business in Berkeley? Be sure to attend Berkeleyside’s first Local Business Forum on Monday Jan. 24, 7-9 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and it’s free.

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  • http://twitter.com/Weezus Rachel A.

    I wondered about this as I saw the marquee was empty the last several days. I’m really sorry to hear this news and I hope that the space can be used as a movie theater.

    As a parent of younger kids, I keep wishing there was a theater in town that showed kids matinees every weekend. And not the new stuff — I’m talking Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, Aristocats, etc — all the stuff that gets rented to watch at home. Obviously this isn’t going to make a business plan but it could make it a weekend destination.

  • CJ Higley

    I know nothing about the movie theater business, other than that I have always heard it is nearly impossible to run a profitable independent movie house. That said, I always loved going to the Parkway and thought if their food had been better and the theater cleaner, it was a potential gold mine. I loved their “Baby Brigade” early shows where babes in arms were welcome (diaper changing in the theater wisely prohibited). I loved their weekly Rocky Horror Picture Show late shows. Their pizza was hands down the worst I ever tasted. Frozen Trader Joe’s pizzas would have been better. But I digress…

    My question is, why is it important that the Oaks show first-run shows? There are so many great classic, foreign, cult, kids, and second run possibilities. Add to that some decent food and drink options and a variety of live performances, speakers, event rentals, etc. Is that not viable? Has it been tried? Just curious…

  • Larry

    I hope the Oaks reopens, but I hope they don’t try to get more first-run movies. I’d much rather have another local theater in which I can catch second-run films (as parents of a preschooler, we don’t get to see as many first-run films as we’d like), foreign films, and others that don’t tend to get distribution in the blockbuster chains.

    I really like to frequent the Elmwood (and its sister the Cerrito Theater) since they are independent operators, but they are thwarting me by playing advertisements in front of the movies. This is insulting, taking advantage of my being a captive in my seat at that point to make a few cents more selling my eyeballs to Louis Vuitton and the like. Between a chain that treats me with respect (as a paying customer there strictly to see movies), or an independent who sells me out as a target for advertising, I choose the chain.

  • G

    Everyone, movie theaters HAVE to sell first-run and ads to make money. They just CAN’T make money otherwise. They simply don’t fill enough seats regularly. Do you watch TV? YouTube? Read newspapers? You’re being bombarded with ads too.

  • CJ Higley

    I don’t really mind the ads. True, I’d rather not have to sit through them, but I understand the economics involved. I am less clear about the economics of first-run films. How does it work? Presumably it costs the theater more for the privilege of showing first-runs, right? Then when they do, they are in direct competition with the multiplex theaters, which arguably offer a better product in terms of picture quality, sound systems, stadium seating, etc. So that’s a problem for the Oaks, too. As I said, I genuinely don’t know. Just seems intuitively that a theater like the Oaks would survive, if at all, as a niche neighborhood theater catering to the unique market we have in Berkeley, which isn’t necessarily well served by Hollywood’s idea of good first-run content.

  • dale sanford

    I worked at the Oaks in high school during the Renassaince Rialto era, and even back then I was constantly surprised that it was still in business. There were many, many nights I worked when the combined take from tickets and concessions was less than what we were paid for being there. The programming was an odd assortment of second-runs kicked down from the Shattuck theaters and elsewhere, indie and foreign films, and the occasional blockbuster that they’d somehow gotten. These big movies definitely brought the customers in, but it never seemed like it was enough to make up for all the dead times.

    “Larry,” you say you’d rather go to a chain where you feel more respected, but aren’t there the same amount if not more ads shown at the big chain theaters and multiplexes? Personally I don’t like the ads but I’ve come to expect it, given how difficult it is for theaters (especially independent ones) to make money–which is why concessions cost so much.

  • Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Ky Boyd, Proprietor

    Larry – we’d love to not have to show advertising, but the reality of the movie business today is high film cost, high labor cost, rent, insurance, etc., etc., etc. Without the ads the Elmwood wouldn’t be in business. It is interesting you mention the Loius Vuitton spot. That was made specifically for theatres and designed to look like a movie trailer. I think it annoys you because you were drawn into it expecting it to be a preview and then it turned out to be an ad. Like all good advertising it served its purpose. It got your attention and you remembered it, al biet not positively. And by the way, did you notice the ads here in Berkeleyside? We don’t run a 20 minute ad & promo package like AMC, Regal and Cinemark/Century do and we run less advertising than Landmark. If we did not run the ads, tickets would not be a few cents more as you imply, they would be dollars more. It is also worth pointing out that we don’t charge $7.00+ for a large popcorn, which is what most of our competitors are getting. Hope this bit of explanation helps you understand a bit more about the exhibition business. See you at the movies. Ky Boyd, Proprietor, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood & Rialto Cinemas Cerrito.

  • DC

    I don’t mind the ads. Mostly I chat & ignore them, and some are eye-catching. Happy to have some revenue to keep cinema going!

  • Robert Collier

    I second the others’ comments about wanting a creative, eclectic mix of second-run and cult films at the Oaks. I don’t know the cinema business, but my family and I would gladly go to matinees and other films that are not available in the big commercial theaters. I would think there must be a demand for this — north Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and Kensington are a pretty sophisticated market, no?

  • http://www.berkeleyhomes.com/blog Ira Serkes

    My understanding is that other theater operators in the Berkeley area get the first pick of movies, and that it was difficult for the Oaks, under several different owners/managers (going back to Alan Michaan?), to get first run movies.

    By the time movies came to the Oaks, they’d often been screen months earlier in other theaters.

    I’d LOVE to see the theater re-open .. and when it does, it’s really up to the community to support it. I’ve been there numerous times over the past year or two and rarely saw more than a dozen patrons in the theater.

  • G

    Theater owners cannot charge 9 bucks per person for old movies. This has been tried before and no one has ever paid it. So you may ask, why not charge 3-4 bucks, fill up seats, and play cheap old movies? Good question. Because it has never worked to the extent of covering costs, let alone getting profit. This is why you have sing-along-movies and old movies followed up with interviews, etc where a movie theater tries to do their best to get you in the seat and pay money for an old movie. Time and time again has proven that owners CANNOT get enough occupancy to cover costs for old movies, even the ones your kids love.

    Movie owners do NOT make money off movies. They make money off concessions – popcorn and candy. The few owners who do make money have great relationships with studios. Remember, ever owner has to reach out to a studio and get a leasing agreement in place.

    As for ADs. ADs are what pays a star’s fat paycheck. That Reese Witherspoon movie? Do you know how studios pay her 25 million bucks per movie? Ads. It’s really not covered with movie tickets, believe it or not. Studios include ads when they calculate the overall revenue of a movie.

  • G

    The truth is, small theaters have been dying for a long, long time. It’s not just a parking matter. Running a theater is just tremendously expensive. We’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars in expenses per month. And quite frankly, large screen home TVs have gotten so good that they rival movie experiences in sound, quality, even 3D technology. Theater owners everywhere cannot offer a truly unique experience (they’ve gotten super excited about the latest 3D tech, however. That’s why suddenly all movies are 3D and tickets prices jumped 50 percent in some cities)

    Maybe we should just give up and let the Oak theater go. Instead of letting it go dark, it would be a great new space for a school, daycare, office, retail, etc.

  • G

    Oh I forgot. Ads go to the bottom line of theater owners – trailers for upcoming movie is “advertising” that studios have to negotiate over with theater owners. All this back and forth that few people understand is what keeps your movie stub from being 25 bucks per person, believe it or not.

  • Studebaker Hawk

    I wouldn’t mind paying $9 to see a second-run or old film if it was something I actually wanted to see. What the Cerrito and other small theaters are missing is that they need to get families in (for concessions as well as there are a lot of families around here) you need to have frequent, regularly scheduled programming. For example, if the Oaks offered two sets of 45 minutes of Saturday morning cartoons with some other entertainment during an intermission (magician, puppet show, band, talent show, etc.) every single Saturday my family would make a tradition out of it and be there nearly every week. Likewise with good movies and documentaries that whole families can go to beyond the usual Pixar stuff; If we knew that every, say, 6pm on Thursday a new (old) film was playing that was appropriate for children we’d probably see quite a few of them and buy a lot of popcorn.

  • Larry

    Ky Boyd, thanks for the response. You should know that I would happily pay dollars more to keep you in business without the ads.

    And you’re wrong about Vuitton — we knew it was an ad the second it started. The South Africa promotion featuring the couple who’s never been out of Jersey before has got to go, too.

    It would be acceptable if you ran all the ads you want *before* the advertised start time of the movie. Feels like a bait and switch — instead of me paying you money to see the movie I wanted to see, you’re using the time I paid for to show me something I didn’t come to see, so you make a more money.

    Bottom line is that you think you’re making a couple extra bucks, but it’s a false economy. What’s really happening is that it makes me choose other theaters, and go to fewer movies. And I’m not the only one.

    Try an experiment, advertise: “We can’t make money at less than $8 per ticket. We could charge you $6 and show you ads. But instead we’re going to respect your time, start the movie when advertised, and hope you think that’s worth the extra $2.” Make a big deal about it. Attract the people who are fed up with the other theaters. Are your revenues steady enough that if you did that for a month, you could conclusively tell if you did the same, better, or worse?

  • G

    Larry, it’s NOT an extra 2 dollars. Trying 10-15 dollars.

    Ads pay for rent, insurance, payroll, income tax, you name it. Your 10 dollar ticket doesn’t cover anything.

  • Chris King

    I have an idea I would love to see a theater try. Play one showing a night at around 8.

    I like to go see movies on week nights when it is less crowded. I like to eat dinner with my family and I like to get to bed before midnight. All theaters want to get in two showings a night which typically means the first show starts around 6 or 7 and the second show starts at 9:30 or 10. These times just don’t work for me. Surely there are others like me. If one theater tried a single showing, maybe other folks would come out more often.

  • Mike Farrell

    Netflix

  • Mike Croaro

    No television commercials = extra $10.00 -$15.00 per ticket?

    Gary M., who dont you post with your full name instead of “G”?

    Come on. I don’t buy that for one minute. The Vogue Theatre in San Francisco, a small independenty operates single screen charges regular price and there are no commercials. The same goes for Renaissance Rialto. Actually, their prices are evel less than normal without commercials.

    We need Alan Michaan to post on this site and so we have accuetae information.

  • Larry

    G, if the two ads net the theater owner $15 (compared to the $6-8 we pay for admission), then they should show 3 ads and let us in for free! That would be the same total revenue for them, we’d be thrilled, they’d fill the theater and make a bundle on concessions.

    The fact that they don’t do this seems like strong evidence that what they make from ads is not in fact multiple times what we pay for entry.

    But I’d love to see a full accounting of it. Prove me wrong with real numbers.

  • Larry

    http://img.chan4chan.com/img/2010-04-18/pirate-vs-pay.png

    I believe this point has relevance to theaters as well.

  • Jason

    “We weren’t able to meet our monthly expenses”

    …and this is precisely why they failed.

    Starting an independent theater/restaurant like this is a lot like starting a regular restaurant. You’re guaranteed to be running in the red for at least the first full year of operation.
    If their budget was organized so that they needed to be turning a profit within the first 9 months then they weren’t financially ready to run this kind of a business.

    That aside, I’ve never been a big fan of the Solano atmosphere. Limited parking, and an eclectic smattering of restaurants and shops. As someone who lives significantly closer to the Shattuck strip I have a hard time convincing myself to head over to Solano for much of anything.

  • Peggy

    I love the Oaks. I wish the City could take it over as a Community Center with dance or art studios, meeting rooms, and keep a small theatre/screening room/performance space. Most of those uses don’t need windows, which are the only thing it lacks.

  • Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Ky Boyd, Proprietor

    In order to be competitive in the first run market, a theatre has to be able to offer the distributors for both independent and hollywood movies the same revenue opportunity that they would have at the other theatres in the market. So at the Elmwood and Cerrito, if we want to be competitive and get first run films then we have to charge similar prices to the other theatre operators in the market because film rental is a % of box office revenue.

    It’s an interesting idea to start the ads before the advertised showtime Larry, but not possible under the terms of the contracts. The advertisers want to make sure the maximum number of moviegoers see the ad they are paying to place before the feature.

    Whether you choose to believe me or not Mike, the facts remain the same. And for the record, I only said dollars more per ticket if the Elmwood did not show ads. I never said $10 to $15 more. I just want to be clear about that.

    As for only one show per night at 8 vs. a 7 and a 9, again, it comes down to giving the distributors the same opportunity to make the same amount of film rental. To those guys more showtimes = more revenue = more film rental. Also, while some people prefer 8 others are much happier with a 7ish time because it gets them home earlier. I’ve always thought 7:30 was a good compromise, so we strive to have a 7:30 time for at least one film at the Elmwood but are often thwarted by long running times and films that start at 10:0opm or later aren’t viable. It’s a tricky business scheduling showtimes.

    Hope this helps. See you at the movies.
    Ky Boyd, Proprietor, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and Rialto Cinemas Cerrito

    While the City of Berkeley being a savior for the Oaks is an interesting thought, where is the money going to come from in an already strapped City budget?

  • Jane Tierney

    While the most recent Oaks Theater proprietors had distributed films, they had never run a “retail” business, and seemed woefully out of their league. They missed ample opportunities and encouragement to promote the business, engage with local businesses or the community or bring additional food selections to the existing snack service inside the theater to boost their profits. They tried to offer a variety of films, but with those uncomfortable seats, they should not be charging what AMC or other first run theaters charge. It almost seemed the business was designed for some other purpose, perhaps something on paper.

  • Don

    Wow. The last time I went to the Oaks was for Friday the 13th #3 in 1982. Used to go there to see Bond movies such as Thunderball and From Russia With Love. I’ll never forget how excited everyone was when that music would cue up. Also remember the posters out front for I Am Curious (Yellow). Yep, I’m really on topic here.

  • LMorland

    What an interesting discussion! And how marvelous that Ky Boyd, Proprietor of the Elmwood/Cerrito, is participating. He and his partner(s) are among the heroes of the Bay Area, in my opinion: successfully running a movie theater where none existed a few years ago is a terrific achievement.

    A couple of comments: I live in France most of the year, and although the cinemas here enjoy government support, the major chains have had advertisements (in addition to trailers) for a very long time. They struck me as odd the first time I saw them 15 years ago, but one gets used to it. (At a UGC cinema, many people don’t bother to show up until 10 or 15 minutes after the film is scheduled to start.) Moreover, France is a country where cinemas are still thriving. Paris, for example, has 89 movie theaters comprising 378 screens (a total of 73,766 seats). http://www.cnc.fr.

    Secondly, although my house in Berkeley is 5 minutes away from the top of Solano I had not seen a film at the Oaks in about 20 years. Normally I see films in downtown Berkeley (although unlike Jason, I like the Solano scene — Ajanta is my favorite restaurant) and sometimes at the Solano, although I make it a point to go to the Cerrito when I can.

    I would guess that the Oaks died because of bad programming. (And apparently bad seats as well.) CJ Higley’s suggestion of a mixed live theater & old/indie film venue is a good one. It’s working in my hometown of DeLand, Florida: http://www.athenstheatre.org/

    The worst idea, in my opinion, would be to turn the Oaks into retail space. Solano Avenue has more than enough retail establishments. We need variety. We need entertainment!

  • MJ

    The Oaks should have bought into the current IMMENCE draw of the Met Opera in HD series of simulcast and “encore”  performances, or the S.F. Opera in HD simulcasts,  or the National Theatre (in London) real time and encore productions, etc.  The recent simulcasts of national and international musical and theatrical productions brings a HUGE success to an otherwise anemic trend in moviehouse attendence.  Just ask the folks at the AMC Bay Street 16 theatre, or the independent Lark Theater in Larkspur, or the Raphael in San Raphael–many times one can’t even get a seat, unless tickets are purchased well ahead of showtime.  Come on Oaks–get with it.  Upper Solano also is a perfect neighborhood for such productions.  Cut out the kid movies:  go for the thinkers. 

  • rogerlb

     Hi, Mike,

    Being in the movie business for numerous years and having worked for Mr. Michaan years ago, I can tell you that Michaan’s decision not to run ads has seriously impacted his bottom line.  He traded easy (short-term) profit for a better movie-going experience that does not always translate into more tickets sold. 

    Note that he sold all his theatres (including the Oaks) and can only keep the Grand Lake running  due to a unique situation of no direct competition (no palaces), a residential neighborhood close and dense enough to support it, and 4 (not 2) screens to aggressively rotate product.

    In this age of DVD, Netflix and infinite options running an independent theatre is no cakewalk.

    Roger

  • Joe

    I grew up in El Cerrito and went to the Oaks as a kid and ended up working there in the 70’s. Sorry to see that it closed.