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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.
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Snow at the Swedenborgian

The film crew at the snowy Swedenborgian Church, with Nicole Kidman in the doorway.

Hollywood is in the neighborhood and they’re going to church — the Swedenborgian Church at Washington and Lyon. It snowed on the little church this week — or appeared to — when Nicole Kidman was filming scenes for Hemingway & Gelhorn, a new HBO film directed by Philip Kaufman, who lives just over the hill. It’s a drama centered on the romance between Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. The film also stars Clive Owens and is expected on HBO in 2012.

A preview:

The night is brighter

In what locals are taking as a hopeful sign — quite literally — the historic neon marquee at the Clay Theater is lighted once again. It has been dark and broken for months, a tangible nightly reminder of the theater’s uncertain future. Now that the lights are back on — and Catherine Deneuve is back on the screen — hope springs eternal.

Political consultant turns filmmaker

Duane Baughman screens his new film at the Clay.

By Don Langley

The film “Bhutto,” which earned high praise at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, is now playing at several dozen theaters throughout the country. But local producer-director Duane Baughman says it was most important to him to bring his documentary home to the Clay Theater on Fillmore.

He invited his Washington Street neighbors and others he had met in his informal office — the Peet’s coffee shop at Sacramento and Fillmore Streets — to a showing there early in the new year. Baughman also bought out a San Diego theater at the end of January so his parents and their friends could see it in the city where he grew up.
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Final cut at the Clay?

SF Weekly offers a cover story this week on the uncertain future of Fillmore Street’s Clay Theater. “People don’t want the Clay Theater to die,” the Weekly says. “But judging from ticket sales, they don’t want to see films there either.”

Read more

Talks continue on fate of Clay Theater

There’s been no breakthrough yet, but negotiations are continuing between the owner of the Clay Theater and the San Francisco Film Society, which hopes to make the theater its home.

In addition, the owner’s architect has met with the CEO of Landmark Theatres, the current operator, about renovations that might make the theater attractive to Landmark as a long-term operator.

“We are actively engaged,” said architect Charles Kahn. He said it appears that both Landmark and the Film Society prefer a single-screen theater over his proposal to create three smaller theaters, and that owner Balgobind Jaiswal is agreeable. More contentious is Jaiswal’s desire to build four townhouses above the theater and excavate underneath for parking.

“The theater is secondary to their desire to build condos,” said Graham Leggett, executive director of the Film Society. “We worry it’s not going to be workable for us.” Getting permits and building the condos could take years, Leggett said, and require the theater to go dark during construction.

Kahn said the condos are essential to fund the renovation of the theater. He said the owner is “absolutely committed” to finding a way to save the theater.

Film Society leaders have met with Kahn three times, most recently with an architect of their own they retained to help shape the future of the 100-year-old theater. “It seems problematic at the moment, but at least there’s a dialogue,” Leggett said. “It’s a work in progress.”

EARLIER: How the Clay dodged a bullet

‘Howl’ premiered here — now it’s back

A sidewalk plaque at 3119 Fillmore commemorates the night the poem was first read.

The legendary poem “Howl” — which had its premiere on Fillmore Street in 1955 and is now the subject of a film showing at the Sundance Kabuki — was 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg’s first published work. But it instantly established him as a vital new voice for rapidly changing times.

It all began on what Jack Kerouac would come to call the “mad night” of October 7, 1955. That’s when Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time at the soon-to-be-legendary Six Gallery — a former auto-body shop turned Bohemian hangout at 3119 Fillmore Street — and left the crowd of hipsters in tears.
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How the Clay dodged a bullet

By Thomas Reynolds

Discussions between Clay Theater owner Balgobind Jaiswal and the San Francisco Film Society began last December after Landmark Theatres decided it could no longer afford to continue to operate the venerable theater, which has been showing films on Fillmore Street for 100 years.

The lease had actually expired two years earlier.

“The Clay has been in trouble financially for several years,” said Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark. “So we’ve been working on what we could do to prolong the probable demise of any single-screen theater.”
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Film Society, theater owner resume talks

The owner of the Clay Theater has invited leaders of the San Francisco Film Society to meet on September 13 to resume discussions about the Film Society’s desire to lease the historic Fillmore art house.

Graham Leggat, executive director of the society, said he is eager to proceed. “It’s certainly progress,” Leggat said. “It’s a better sign. How good it is remains to be seen.”

At the same time, owner Balgobind Jaiswal — who also owns the Blu and Cielo women’s clothing boutiques on Fillmore Street, as well as the building that houses Marc by Marc Jacobs — has retained an architect who is exploring how the Clay might be reconfigured to accommodate two or three smaller theaters. And he may seek to build four townhouses on top of the theaters to help fund the project.

“We are committed to keeping it as a theater,” Jaiswal said. “We are trying to find a long-term solution, rather than being back in the same situation in two years.”
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Clay Theater gets a reprieve

What a difference a day makes.

On Saturday, Michael Blythe, a manager at the Clay Theatre on Fillmore, was grappling with what to do after the Clay played its last picture show on Sunday. But by midday Sunday, he had a happier problem on his hands: how to phrase the good news on the marquee that there was a reprieve — the Clay wasn’t closing immediately after all.

The news came late Saturday afternoon as cast and crew were readying for what they believed to be the finale of an institution at the Clay: the monthly midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“We were all hovering around watching the telephone like it was an execution,” says Blythe. “This is a big Band-Aid, but it’s the best thing we could hope for in this situation.” Blythe says the ultimate goal remains to have a group such as the San Francisco Film Society take over the theatre that’s been operating on Fillmore for the last 100 years.

Early Sunday afternoon he was scrambling to call the popcorn vendor and others who were told their contracts with the Clay were canceled — and telling employees, including one who’s worked there since the 1970s, to come back to work.

“This has been a real roller coaster ride,” he says.

And it’s not over yet.