New co-directors Chris and Kate Statton are adding live theatrical elements to the Roxie's presentation of film.

New Era Takes Hold at the Roxie

Michael Guillén May 31, 2011

Each time I walk into the Roxie Theater I observe incremental changes in this venerable Mission District institution—the elephant door handles leading into the main auditorium or Hal Bergman's photographs of the projection booth displayed in the lobby and above the concession stand. There are also, however, much more fundamental changes taking place at the cinema. I took time to speak with Christopher and Kate Statton, the new husband-and-wife co-executive directing team of the Roxie, to acquaint myself further with what Michael Fox has termed “the Statton era.”

SF360: I've watched the Roxie go through several changes over the past few decades. Its last incarnation was as the Roxie Film Center under the aegis of New College but that association terminated with New College's financial collapse and the controversial revocation of their accreditation.

Chris Statton: Yes. New College basically left the Roxie in a difficult situation when they went under. A private family, Rodney and Alan Holt, stepped in and bought the theater from New College and secured its nonprofit status. They then hired me and Kate and we're developing that aspect of the theater.

SF360: Do you know why the Holts took an interest in the Roxie?

Chris: Rod was involved with New College. When New College went under, he felt very bad about the situation the theater was in. The Holt family has a long history of philanthropy: supporting different art organizations and museums. Evidently, Rod has a museum of his own that he founded somewhere that houses nothing but propaganda art. It sounds really interesting.

Kate Statton: It was a really nice thing they did. They kept the doors to the Roxie open. When that transition happened, it was as if the Fates knew that Chris and I were ready to take on a project like this.

SF360: Remind me when the two of you became involved.

Chris: We stepped in a little more than a year ago in January 2010. The Holts got the theater after New College went under at the end of 2007.

Kate: We've spent the last year basically getting the business ready to expand. We had to start with the lobby renovation, getting it cleaned out and presentable, and have continued through the year discovering our talents as a group—who can do what roles—and to position the crew into place so we could expand.

SF360: How did the Holts find you two?

Chris: Alan, who was the former Executive Director before we stepped in, saw his role as a stopgap. His goal was precisely to step in and convert the theater into a nonprofit and then find somebody to develop the nonprofit.

Kate: I met him one night at a bar, El Rio in the Mission, and that's where we started this conversation.

Chris: As fate would have it, a few months before Kate met Alan, she and I had been talking about finding an abandoned theater and turning it into a nonprofit art space that would involve film and then suddenly there was Alan looking for someone to do that at one of the best theaters in San Francisco.

Kate: When I was at El Rio with friends, everyone was introducing themselves and Alan was the friend of a friend and I mentioned to him that my husband and I were looking for an art space and he asked, ‘Do you have any interest in the Roxie Theater?’ I didn't believe him at all at first. I thought he was a joker. But then he gave me his card and I was ready to sign on the following morning.

SF360: Being that the Roxie has been beleaguered for quite a while and everyone's had their eye on it, wondering if it would survive the trend of so many community single-screen theaters we worry about losing (the Clay, the Red Vic), why did it take so long to develop the strategy to convert it into a nonprofit organization? And can you speak to the value of its having become a nonprofit? How will it help the Roxie to survive?

Chris: A nonprofit status helps the Roxie because it allows us to focus on presenting the space as a gallery of film so we can be more selective about the films we feel have something to offer and should be shown to the community, without having to essentially worry about the bottom line. It's no longer just about making money. We don't have to program films that will be blockbusters and make the theater a bunch of money, at least not at the expense of being seen as a theater that is promoting unique curating and quality programming. A nonprofit status also helps the Roxie secure grants.

Kate: With having multiple projects going on at the Roxie, that means you're accessing multiple groups of people and bringing San Francisco's larger community into this space. The only way that single-screen theaters can survive—along with many other wonderful art spaces that are rapidly disappearing in San Francisco, let alone all over the country—is they have to be community-driven. There has to be that interest and that drive within the community itself. The role of a nonprofit is to allow a space for imaginative ideas to spring up from the community, to foster those interests, and not to simply focus on a bottom line.

Chris: Our focus is to make the Roxie a space of celebration and gathering; that's what the bottom line of our mission is. We're trying to develop programs that serve the community so that they want to come here to explore art and share a community experience.

SF360: So now that I have a sense of how you became involved with the Roxie, can you tell me a little bit about your expertise in working with nonprofits?

Kate: I have to say that we have never learned so much as we are going through this process. Chris and I met at a nonprofit in Marin where we were both working. We've shared that experience. As a child, I was brought up with live theater. In 1970, my dad, Alan Finneran, had a local theater company called Soon Three, with which my mother was also involved, so it was a family enterprise. As an adult, I've worked extensively in the community in various art-related activities. So I come to this project not so much with a strong background in film as with a strong background grounded in theater and performance. That's become my role at the Roxie: to work on community building and to develop the Roxie's live component, what we're calling Roxie Stages.

SF360: Tell me about that. What are you hoping to do with Roxie Stages?

Kate: Roxie Stages is a program that will be starting in May 2011 on Saturday nights that will be like vaudeville with a contemporary twist. In no way are we trying to mimic the old styles of vaudeville, but we are trying to bring back the idea of live performance in the theater and contributing to that history. Live theater was present in these spaces as far back as 1906 through the fall of vaudeville in the ’30s and, basically, during that period there would have been film and live acts going on together in the theaters. The idea is that—as people are moving more and more away from the communal movie house experience to the solitary experience afforded by home entertainment—live theater (I hope!) will again become an amazing access point for community, precisely because it's something that people really can't get at home. We're going to be offering 20-30 minute performances, light-hearted unrelated acts—that's how vaudeville was defined—on stage before the movies start.

SF360: How are you booking these acts? Where are you finding the talent?

Kate: Rick Freedman and I are finding the talent through auditions held every two months—which would frankly make a brilliant documentary—and we're going to simply flyer all over the city. We're going to recreation centers, all of the theatrical departments in schools, to the circus school, to the tap dancing school, to the comedy college, all these places. We're just going to flyer the hell out of the whole city and see who shows up for these auditions. We'll pick four acts and each act will perform twice within our eight-week calendar. We'll also scout as well and go see acts that for one reason or another can't make it to the auditions.

SF360: Film festivals and theatrical exhibitors have already realized the importance, if not necessity, of value added to the cinematic experience by way of filmmakers or talent attending the opening week runs of their films or furthering the spectacular dimension of their events; yours strikes me as a fresh new approach to adding value to the cinematic experience by letting the community itself be the added value.

Kate: And though the performers will receive a small compensation for their travel expenses, the real idea is that we're providing a stage in this wonderful historic theater that everyone knows for a mix of young amateurs and professionals....

SF360: [Whining] Do they all have to be young?

Kate: No! As a matter of fact, they don't. I should really stop saying it that way because I would be happy to host the happy square dancing couple from some senior recreational center. I want an eclectic mix. When I say ‘young,’ I guess I'm referencing the energy behind the project, which is young and fresh. I should clarify: We want performers of all different types, ages, some that are professional, some that are practicing or workshopping. Maybe someone wants to get up on stage and count to 20 in Dutch and can do it in an entertaining way? Maybe someone will have trained their dog to jump through hula hoops? I want animal acts!

SF360: Is that legal?

Kate: I think certain dog tricks and animal acts are legal, sure. But that's a good question. I'd love to get an elephant in there and bring him in by way of the side alley.

SF360: [Laughs.] Calm down. I think you better stick to the elephant door handles.

Kate: OK, small animals. Dog tricks. Cat tricks. Amphibians. Birds. I want it all happening on that stage. I want triplets in sequined leotards on roller skates.

SF360: Ah, the allure of novelty acts! And along with the Roxie Stages, you've also developed a program to promote window installation art?

Chris: Yeah, we realized we had this wonderful window display space in front of the Little Roxie, which originally was a retail space, a bookstore at one point. We decided another way to excite the community and bring in different types of art into the Roxie would be to have a window installation that people on the street could enjoy so we've been partnering with local galleries like the Lab and finding artists to do monthly installations.

Some months the installation will have something to do with the films we've programmed that month but other times not. For example, when we screened Queen of the Sun about colony collapse disorder, we had a window installation that looked a little bit like a beehive. It was fun to do and we're hoping it will draw more attention to the Roxie, let alone providing an opportunity for our artists to have their work be seen.

SF360: What's the feedback been like so far?

Chris: It's been great! Especially when Kate's installation was in the window, every single time I walked out of the office there would be people on the street taking pictures and it always seemed to draw a crowd. The San Francisco Film Society also put an installation up for a week (Fever Dreams—Laurel Nakadate), which was an interesting video installation with sound projected out onto 16th Street. Again, every single time I left the office there would be people standing there watching it. It's exciting that we're in a position where we can start bringing art to the community by inviting art from the community and giving exposure to these artists.

SF360: I admire your focus on community building, which I consider an art in itself, and it's the only way that organizations like the Roxie will truly be able to survive in the coming lean years. Speaking of collaboration and the San Francisco Film Society, I attended the class on Hong Kong action films in the Little Roxie the other night. Can you speak about your partnership with the education department of the San Francisco Film Society?

Chris: It's been wonderful for both organizations. Our location is so perfect for the audience they're trying to reach with their classes and they really know how to structure and put together an amazing class. We've been getting sold-out crowds for every class they've held here.

Kate: This neighborhood is such an accessible neighborhood. Yes, there's no parking. Yes, certain aspects of the street life are hard. But there's BART and several MUNI lines. The classes are selling out because there's a community that lives here in this neighborhood that want to learn these things.

Chris: Also, there are a lot of young kids who live in this neighborhood that wouldn't necessarily have the time to go to school and take a semester class on film; but, are interested in it and more than willing to attend one evening class to expand their knowledge.

Kate: The Roxie would also like to develop its own classes leaning towards theatrical and performance and see what comes from that. I think it would be interesting for a younger generation to talk to people who have been around for a while in San Francisco’s theater scene since the ’70s. It would be fun.

SF360: Detail the donation from Pixar, which allowed you to update the digital equipment in the projection room at the Roxie. Who came in from their organization to help you with that?

Chris: M.T. Silvia—who just recently made the film Atomic Mom—works for Pixar and was able to contact us to let us know that they had a two-tape projector that they were looking to donate to a local theater. They also gave us speakers so we could move from a mono theater to Dolby digital surround sound. It's really an amazing difference. As more and more filmmakers are just shooting digitally and not transferring their films onto 35mm because of costs or whatever, we really needed to upgrade our system to support that trend. We really want to support independent filmmakers in San Francisco so now we're getting the quality equipment to be able to show their art in the best possible fashion.

Kate: It was quite a project getting that equipment installed. It's a fun learning curve here to figure out how to get the new technology to interface with the old technology. That's what makes the Roxie special: We have both.

SF360: It's my understanding that you are one of the few—if not the only—single screen theater that still uses a carbon arc projector?

Kate: The Victoria Theatre has one but it's not working.

Chris: Unfortunately, it might be coming close to the end of carbon arc projection because no one manufactures the carbon rods anymore.

Kate: We're still going to use the machines; but, we'll have to use Xenon lamp houses instead of rods.

Chris: And we're still scouring the country to find any leftover stockpiles of carbon rods; but, at this point, I think we've exhausted our sources.

Kate: That's another documentary waiting to be made: scavenging these six dark screens all over the country to go through them to find replacement parts.

SF360: What has been the value of the carbon arc projection system? Why will it be a loss when it comes to a close?

Chris: The light from the electrical arc is perfect for film. It's a warmer light and projects a better quality image.

SF360: A luster?

Chris: Exactly! And so that's why we've been holding onto it for as long as we can because we really—as I said earlier—see ourselves as a gallery of film. We want to present filmmaker's artwork in the best possible format.

Kate: It would be really cool to find someone who manufactures carbon rods.

SF360: Well maybe if you can get the word out, you never know? That's why it's important to tease out this information and not give up on it. So to summarize, the Roxie has been converted to a nonprofit, you two have been brought in to helm that nonprofit, and you are being counseled by a board? Is this the first time that the Roxie has had a Board of Directors?

Chris: Yes.

SF360: Can you talk a little bit about the formation of the board and what exactly they do?

Chris: We have a board now that is beyond our wildest hopes. They're a great group of people, all with different talents. They each have something different to offer the Roxie. It's a strong, creative group with much enthusiasm and energy. When we started looking around, we were thinking of the different roles that we wanted filled at the Roxie and who would be best to offer into that type of support. We now have a board of 15.

SF360: So now that you have a Board of Directors and an advisory board that includes John Waters, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Graham Leggat, what is the Roxie's strategy for future programming?

Chris: We're hoping to have the strong programming that Elliot Lavine represents with such series as I Wake Up Dreaming and Not Necessarily Noir.

Kate: The Roxie is actually the right size for that kind of programming. It's hard to fill a large auditorium, even a 500-seat house, with that kind of programming; but, the Roxie is appropriately sized. We really want to keep going with the repertory programming: rare, unusual, hard-to-get prints. That's another thing that's beneficial about having a nonprofit status: you can get people who are really interested in funding specific grants for expensive films that are difficult to get.

Chris: Part of our programming goal when we stepped in was to show as much as we can on 35mm. If it's available on 35mm, we try to get it on 35mm. Last year with his rep programming Elliot was able to get MGM to reissue some of the Whistler films on 35mm, which was amazing.

But besides the rep programming, we really want the Roxie to be a place for independent filmmakers. We now have a great programming team at the Roxie and it's now finding a balance between the rep programming and these up-and-coming films that we really think need to be noticed and that the community should be aware of because these are filmmakers who are going places.

Also, we want to create fun events.

Kate: We have a specific event programmer Mike Keegan who puts together our special events.

Chris: He brings so much to the table with his knowledge of film and with the way that he can create events that embrace the youthful community we mentioned earlier who are living in the Mission: young artists who perhaps have a knowledge of film but who also just want to come and hang out and have fun too. The day after our John Waters Christmas benefit, Mike had a program called ‘Drunk and Alone’ where he screened Home Alone and had beer floats. It was a sold-out event and everyone had a good time. It brought a lot of people into the Roxie to have a good time.

Kate: Our team is amazing because we have such a variety of interested individuals. Mike's parties have a raw, young edge to them and I want Roxie stages to be beautiful and theatrical and then we have Rachel Hart programming foreign films.

Chris: Rick Norris just did a French series and Rick knows more about French films than anyone I know. But I want to stress that it's not like we're all over the map such that it's confusing. First of all, the Roxie has a great history of what it's shown and programmed, so our programming goal is to build upon that, to draw in more people with these fun events, who then will start trusting our programming and venture out to see these more independent films and up-and-coming filmmakers because they trust that what we're programming here is of high quality.

SF360: Which leads me to ask about your membership drive and what your new membership categories entail?

Chris: We launched our membership drive in December. At the $50 level you get different member nights, a discount for general tickets, preferred seating on pre-sales, and a free popcorn when you sign up. And it goes all the way up to a $1,500 level membership where you get a private screening and eight free passes for the year.

SF360: That's intriguing. You're actually giving people the chance to claim the Roxie for a night?

Chris: We really want the Roxie to feel like a community effort and that everyone has a say in what's going on here. We put that category in there to offer people who are really interested in supporting the Roxie a chance to see what they want here and to trust the community's needs and interests. If there are people out there who are that dedicated, we want to hear from them about what sparks their interest in film. This summer we'll be doing a membership drive. We're going to stage a members night and we're talking to a few names to host that evening—I can't reveal them yet—but it's going to be a really fun night to let the community know how our membership will be working and what the Roxie will have to offer around membership. Membership is an important component to any nonprofit theater, which should be a theater that members are all buying into to support the institution. Whether you're at the $50 level or the $1,500 level, we want the Roxie membership to feel that this is their space. This is everybody's theater and it's a group effort to keep the doors open and to find what we want to put on the screen. We have amazing programmers but they can't be aware of every possible film out there and so we want members to be able to tell us if they've noticed something interesting.

SF360: Finally, to wrap up here, how does the Roxie hope to further San Francisco's film festival culture? Are you continuing to collaborate with SF Indiefest?

Chris: Definitely. Working with Jeff Ross has been wonderful. SF Indiefest is such an established part of the Roxie, it's a great organization, and it's a perfect fit for the neighborhood. We also have a great relationship with Frameline. They're coming back this year and we love it. We're [hoping] to exhibit the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema By the Bay. So many Bay Area filmmakers are from this neighborhood and to show their work in the neighborhood they live in is exciting.

Kate: One last thing I would like to say is that we are always looking for support. I'll be the person who says that. The Roxie is a nonprofit and we really need people who want to be involved financially to please contact either one of us; but, just coming and buying a ticket and seeing a film is wonderful too. Help out whichever way you can. We think the things that are happening at the Roxie are really wonderful and exciting for the City; but, we definitely need enthusiastic sponsorship.

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