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Why does everyone care so much about seats? Castro Theatre controversy explained

A view of the orchestra seats and stage at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Friendships have been severed, a community divided. Political careers have been launched, and others extinguished. Some half-dozen groups have been organized, protest colors decided and seemingly endless meetings organized. 

At issue? Chairs. And, many argue, a whole heap of historical interpretations.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to require fixed, cinema-style seating at the Castro Theatre, which Another Planet Entertainment wants to remove to install flexible, motorized seating that allows the venue to have a variety of uses. The long-anticipated decision has dominated local headlines for more than a year and spawned fraught deliberation, fiery emotion and public comment marathons. 

It is the result—but not the end—of an epic struggle between two factions: Berkeley-based promotion company Another Planet Entertainment, which took over operations of the 1922 theater in January 2022, and the Castro Theatre Conservancy, a nonprofit that wants the cinema to remain a movie palace, complete with fixed, orchestra-level seating. 

Orchestra seats at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

As the meetings, advocacy campaigns, amendments, delays and proposals have proliferated, the two sides have become increasingly entrenched, coalescing with their allies and all but ruling out any kind of compromise.   

At the heart of it all is the economic viability of a single-screen theater that needs substantial repairs, coupled with the emotional attachment to an iconic symbol and a historic landmark that holds particular meaning for San Francisco’s queer community. 

“The culture of San Francisco and what it stands for is at a crossroads here,” said Turner Classic Movies host and Film Noir Festival founder Eddie Muller at a special meeting of the advocacy group San Francisco Heritage last Tuesday. 

“If San Francisco chooses to prioritize alcohol over art, then I feel we have reached that crossroad,” Muller added, referring to Another Planet’s plans to remove the lobby concessions area and add bars to the ground floor and upper level to serve concertgoers.   

An outside view of the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The average movie theater today has 150 to 200 seats; the Castro has 1,400. But when it opened 101 years ago, it was considered on the small side—the long-shuttered El Capitan on Mission Street had more than double the capacity. Today, it’s possible to sell out the theater—it happened recently with the SFFILM Festival’s centerpiece screening and free tickets for a Heklina memorial in May evaporated in minutes

But it’s questionable whether that can be done on an ongoing basis, given the struggles of a much smaller, restored historic venue like the Richmond District’s 4-Star Theater, which has resorted to crowdfunding to keep the lights on. It doesn’t help that the rise of streaming and changes in viewing habits have decimated the traditional moviegoing audience. 

But the Castro is unique from all others, a place devotees have called a “temple” and a “shrine” in public comment, and the Castro Theatre Conservancy argues it can be run successfully as a nonprofit, like the Roxie, with the generous contributions of its well-funded supporters. 

The movie palace is home to the world’s longest and largest LGBTQ+ film festival, Frameline (which has come out in support of APE’s plans), and the marquee itself is a celebrated image of San Francisco—a neon beacon for an alternative church. When the Castro opened more than 100 years ago, movies were silent, and we didn’t have two bridges spanning our waters, and in 1977, the Timothy Pfleuger-designed theater was designated an early historic landmark of the city. 

A view of the orchestra seats at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

This latest development won’t be the final scene in the saga—there are other changes to be debated—and it’s also very, very far from the first. A look back at the many steps in this ongoing battle makes it evident how deep the feelings run—and how difficult it is to get things done. 

“It’s never over at City Hall,” said Tom Ammiano. 

Which is, perhaps, part of the problem.

Even for those who have followed this drama closely, it can be difficult to keep the timeline of protests and counterprotests straight. So, we’ve compiled a chronology of the events leading up to this week’s historic vote. 

A sign for the Castro theatre illuminated by sunlight.
An outside view of the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard


January 2022
Another Planet Entertainment Announces Takeover

The Bay Area event-promotion company Another Planet Entertainment announces it will take over the programming and management of the Castro Theatre, after having reached an agreement with the Nasser family, the owners of the cinema since its opening. The deal includes $15 million in funding for renovations. Another Planet, founded by former Bill Graham Presents executives, runs the music festival Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park in addition to managing San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Oakland’s Fox Theater. 

April 2022
Castro Theatre Conservancy Formed

Concerned about potential changes to the theater, the nonprofit Castro Theatre Conservancy is formed with a mission to preserve the cinema as a movie palace. Peter Pastreich, who previously led the San Francisco Symphony for 21 years, takes the role of executive director. Many of the organization’s supporters are Hollywood A-listers, including Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Frances McDormand and Steven Spielberg. 

A view of the projection storage room at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

May 24, 2022
Legislation Introduced To Reexamine Landmark Designation 

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduces legislation—which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously supported—to reexamine the Castro’s historic landmark designation. “It’s such an early landmark,” Mandelman said at the time. “We do them differently today.” 

While the 1977 historic landmark designation includes only the exterior, there’s a desire to landmark features of the interior as well. While this would appear as an indicator that Mandelman is in the pro-seats camp, he later came out in support of the Castro becoming a multipurpose venue. 

June 22, 2022
100-Year Anniversary 

Another Planet holds a 100-year celebration at the Castro Theatre in honor of its centennial, and programming consists of 11 days of film screenings. Supporters of APE’s renovation plans point to the low turnout as evidence of the economic difficulties of running the theater; the Castro Theatre Conservancy supporters claim the series wasn’t properly advertised. Held on the theater’s actual birthday, June 22, the event includes historic features filmed in San Francisco. The Conservancy uses the anniversary to release its proposal for managing the theater, a plan that requires the Nasser family to sell or lease the movie palace to the organization while it raises funds for repairs. 

Production worker Dimitri Anthes works the projector in the Castro Theatre. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Aug. 11, 2022
Community Meeting at the Castro Theatre

After complaints surrounding a lack of communication regarding their plans, representatives of the Nasser family and Another Planet organize a presentation and Q&A at the Castro that’s open to the public. Supporters of the “Save the Seats” campaign show up in force at the raucous town hall meeting, where the Conservancy’s slogan is spelled out on T-shirts. 

Dec. 7, 2022
Historic Preservation Committee Votes To Delay Discussion

The Historic Preservation Committee votes to delay a discussion of the theater’s landmark designation status—including the preservation of its seats—until Feb. 1, 2023. As it had already been postponed at an October meeting, some observers criticized the ongoing “punting” of the issue. The pro-seats side sees these repeated continuances as a delay tactic by Another Planet, who they allege is hoping to wait out the situation until emotions simmer down. 

Jan. 26, 2023
Another Planet Releases Updated Renovation Plan

In response to concerns around the removal of the fixed, orchestra-level seating with ideal sightlines for cinema, Another Planet launches a renovation plan that includes a motorized system for the theater’s seating that can be employed for a variety of uses—including seated cinematic events and general admission concerts.  

A film collection sits at the Castro Theatre. | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

Feb. 1, 2023
Landmark Amendment Recommendation

The Historic Preservation Committee unanimously votes to include the theater’s interior as part of its landmark designation. The specifically named interior-defining features include everything from the metal chandelier to its Art Deco drinking fountain, the lobby’s coffered ceiling to the organist’s rise from the stage—and, most importantly, “the presence of seating.” Yet the language around seats is vague enough that Another Planet Entertainment celebrates the decision as a win, whereas the Castro Theatre Conservancy lobbies for specific language that includes the seats being physically affixed to a raked floor in a movie palace setting. 

April 16, 2023
Castro Theatre Conservancy Releases New Plan 

The Conservancy releases a 15-page plan for taking over the theater, which includes requiring programming every day of the year, as a response to increased criticism that there has been a lack of programming at the theater under APE’s management. The plan estimates an average sale of 400 tickets per film screening and includes renting out the theater for special events. 

April 17, 2023
Land Use Committee Votes To Preserve Seats

After multiple delays, a majority (2-1) of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee votes in favor of extending the interior landmark designation to include the 800 fixed seats on the orchestra floor, which would foil Another Planet’s plans to create flexible, multiuse seating. Supervisors Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin vote in favor of landmarking the seats; Supervisor Myrna Melgar votes against it. The phrase “presence of seating,” which is what the Historic Preservation Committee initially approved, is to be replaced with the language “fixed theatrical seating in a movie palace style.” 

A view of the stage and orchestra seats at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

May 4, 2023
Uproar at Castro Merchants Association 

President of the Castro Merchants Association Terrance Alan is ousted in connection with business owners saying he did not accurately represent their views regarding the Castro Theatre and is replaced by Cliff’s Variety co-owner Terry Asten Bennett. The Castro Merchants Association had previously come out in support of Another Planet’s renovation plans, with conditions (these conditions are later dropped on June 1). 

May 8, 2023
Revised Amendment Advanced 

Following an earlier meeting that resulted in a two-week delay, the revised language of the interior landmarking—which preserves the fixed seating on the orchestra floor in a movie-palace style—is advanced by a 2-1 vote by the Land Use and Transportation Committee. Once again, Peskin and Preston vote to keep the fixed seats; Melgar does not. 

May 11, 2023
Formation of a New Advocacy Group

Joe Sangirardi and Mike Murray, two gay residents of the Castro, form the group Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre in support of APE’s renovation plans, claiming this perspective has not been represented enough at meetings and in the media.  

A view of the box office at the Castro Theatre | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

May 15, 2023
Call To Remove “Fixed Seating” Language 

Supervisor Mandelman, who initially spurred the call to revisit the landmark designation, says he will make a proposal to remove the language of “fixed seating” from the historic landmark designation, as reported by Hoodline. 

June 6, 2023
Board of Supervisors Meeting To Decide on Removing Amendment

The long-anticipated May 16 Board of Supervisors meeting is delayed until June 6, when the commissioners will decide whether to remove the amendment to the historic landmark designation, which landmarks the cinema’s seating being affixed to the floor. There will be no public comment at the meeting. 

June 8, 2023
Joint meeting of the Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission

A meeting to decide on the appropriateness certificate for the Castro Theatre, a necessary step in the alteration of city landmarks, in a meeting that will be open to public comment. 

Multiple steps need to be addressed before Another Planet has a clear runway, however. Not only is an appropriateness certificate required to make renovations, conditional-use authorizations for nighttime entertainment and a bar are, too—all of which could be appealed. With the forecast clear for more meetings, the show’s not over yet.