Film Society strikes a deal in Japantown

The stylish cinema at New People in Japantown will be the home of the Film Society.

After more than a year of exploring the possibilities, the San Francisco Film Society is coming to the neighborhood — but to Japantown, not the Clay Theater.

The Film Society announced this morning that it will establish a year-round home and take over the programming of the stylish and high-tech Viz Cinema at the New People complex at 1746 Post Street in Japantown. The cinema opened in 2009 as part of a new J-Pop Center devoted to contemporary Japanese pop culture.

“It’s a 143-seat state-of-the-art single-screen that we gave a test drive to during the International,” said Graham Leggat, executive director of the Film Society, which sponsors the San Francisco International Film Festival nearby at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. “It was hugely popular.”

Last August the Film Society made an overture to take over the 100-year-old Clay Theater on Fillmore Street when its closure was threatened. Talks continued in fits and starts between the society and Clay Theater owner Balgobind Jaiswal, who also retained an architect to design townhouses to be built above the venerable art film house.

“The Clay just became too much of a can of worms,” Leggat said. Its future remains uncertain.

Jaiswal expressed regret but said his planning would move forward to retain the Clay as a movie theater.

“Unfortunately for us, the Film Society prefers the new, ready-for-occupancy, state-of-the-art facility of the New People’s building” and its location in Japantown, Jaiswal said. “Our long-term strategy … is to improve the [Clay] into a state-of-the art facility, but the process is slow.”

The Clay has been operated for many years by Landmark Theaters, which has expressed new interest in continuing to run the theater. Landmark has recently refurbished the Clay’s blazing neon marquee.

“We renewed our lease and are working diligently with our landlord on both of us continuing operating the Clay for a long time into the future,” said Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff.

“We are still actively pursuing Landmark as a long-term tenant,” said Jaiswal, the theater’s owner, “but the success of those negotiations depends on our ability to update the theater, and to fund the necessary improvements.”