No More Popcorn: Another Big Theater Chain Pulls Out of Chronicle Movie Listings -- And Bay Area Indy Cinemas Threaten to Follow, En Masse

Categories: Business, Media
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It's 106 miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark out and we're wearing sunglasses. How many lines was that? How much do we owe the Chronicle?
For those who eschew hand-held digital devices, the San Francisco Chronicle used to be your best bet when you needed to figure out what films were playing where thanks to the paper's comprehensive movie listings page. Unfortunately, as is the case with most aspects of the Chron (and, to be fair, nearly every big paper) the present only makes the past look that much more glorious.

Massive cinema chain Regal Theaters last month pulled out of the movie listings page -- a service theaters pay for with the Chronicle, unlike the situation in most every other paper in the realm. This is probably not the major problem on the minds of the folks running a paper that subtly announced yesterday that it plans to gut staff, sell the business, or shut the whole fucking place down. And yet, piling on the paper's woes, a conglomeration of peeved independent cinema owners say they, too, plan on simultaneously jumping ship, perhaps as soon as early March. "And we'll all have a press conference for other local media -- I don't think the Chronicle will cover it," confirms Allen Michaan, the owner of the Orinda Theatre and Oakland's Grand Lake. Gary Meyer, the owner of San Francisco's Balboa Theater, estimates the independent cinemas' revolt could cost the Chron upwards of $400,000 yearly.

Small cinema owners like Michaan pay a little over $11 per line to appear in the movie listings. That doesn't sound like much, but even the name of a movie theater usually comes out to two lines, minimum. Depending upon how many screens you're operating, this can run from $400 to $600 a week, estimates Michaan. No wonder many of the smaller theaters have resorted to merely printing their Web addresses in the movie listings in lieu of multiple lines.

But what has the small theater-owners fuming is their claim they pay exorbitant rates while the major chains work out their own deals that, essentially, cost them nothing.

Calls to Dick Westerling, Regal Theaters' senior vice president of marketing, and the Chronicle's advertising section were not returned for this story. But several theater-owners told SF Weekly that major national theater chains -- including Landmark and Century (now Cinemark) -- have periodically pulled out of the Chron's movie listings page until they could work out exclusive pricing deals. The word around the industry is that the big chains are given movie listings commensurate with the amount of display ads they buy -- a sweet deal for the chains, because all or most of the cost of those ads can be billed to the film studios. Therefore, the movie listings don't cost the chains much, if anything.

The big chains "Aren't paying anything. But the independent operators get no break from the Chronicle. Every year they have fewer and fewer readers and they charge us more money," groused Michaan. Meyer noted that the movie listings used to have a tangible affect on his audiences -- when he printed "last engagement Thursday" in the Chron, the Thursday crowds were as large as any weekend's. That's not the case anymore.

Michaan would like to pay about half of what he's paying now -- and he'd like to see those rates backdated so he'd have a little credit built up. When asked if this is a realistic demand, he noted that it's still more money than free.

As independent cinemas and print newspapers edge ever closer to the precipice, it's likely that this situation, unlike the movies, won't end well.

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