SF supervisors postpone Castro Theatre landmark hearing


San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin is urging Another Planet Entertainment to take a seat and assess the needs and desires of community advocates who have long opposed its controversial plans to change the Castro Theatre. Now, a decision that will play a crucial role in determining the fate of the century-old movie palace has been delayed for another two weeks as board members ask all sides to come to a compromise. 

“I have to say, Mr. Perloff,” Peskin said, referring to Gregg Perloff, the CEO of the Berkeley-based concert production company that took over the operation of the theater last year. “You have got to walk the walk and talk the talk a little bit faster here because I, for one, am getting very frustrated.”  

APE is planning a $15 million overhaul of the theater, which includes upgrades to the screen, dressing rooms and ventilation system, as well as the restoration of aging interior features like the ceiling and chandelier. The topic of contention, however, has been APE’s plans to level the theater’s raked floor, replace orchestra-level seating with tiered platforms of removable seats, and drastically alter and reduce the frequency of programming at the theater, which is renowned as a historic institution in the LGBTQ community and one of the only movie palaces of its kind in the world. 

A rendering of a new layout of the Castro Theatre proposed by Another Planet Entertainment. 

A rendering of a new layout of the Castro Theatre proposed by Another Planet Entertainment. 

Another Planet Entertainment

Last month, APE unveiled a community benefits package detailing its latest plans for the space, which “pledges that 33% of programming at the theatre will be devoted to film screenings and film festivals hosted by such groups as, but not limited to, the Jewish Film Festival, Arab Film Festival, Cinema Italia, Third I South Asian Independent Film Festival, Berlin and Beyond, and the Silent Film Festival.” (As Peskin pointed out, the company has to commit at least a third of its programming to film events without having to apply for a change of use permit.) 

Additionally, APE said it would “commit to hosting LGBTQ+ activities and artists as frequently as possible, with no less than 25% of programming.” David Perry, a spokesperson for APE, told SFGATE the company plans to hold about 170 events at the venue per year at the theater — a figure that may change or increase. But daily repertory film screenings are “not part of the current plan.” Should APE stick to 170 events, that leaves about 56 days of film-focused programming, and with 11 days dedicated to Frameline, the theater could be left with just 45 days for additional film festivals and screenings, as Hoodline initially reported.

“The economics of daily film screenings in a 1400 seat theatre are not financially viable in a post COVID, post Netflix world,” Perry said.  

But during a Board of Supervisors committee hearing at San Francisco City Hall on Monday afternoon, Peskin expressed concerns that this business model would leave the venue “dark about half the year” and said he thought Perloff and APE could “show the community more, sooner.” 

“And if you don’t, don’t be surprised,” he said. “APE walked into this thing like a 300-pound gorilla, and that’s why they haven’t crossed the finish line yet. … It has not been the path for success.”

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin speaks at a hearing on the Castro Theatre's landmark designation on April 3, 2023.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin speaks at a hearing on the Castro Theatre’s landmark designation on April 3, 2023.


The focus of Monday’s meeting was to discuss an amendment to the theater’s landmark designation. Currently, the designation reflects only the exterior of the theater, but last May, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced legislation that would expand it to include “both exterior and interior character defining features, and update the statement of significance to include LGBTQ historical associations.” That proposal was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, and at a packed hearing in February that ran for nearly six hours, the Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously in approval of Mandelman’s proposed legislation.

But on Monday, dozens of public commenters implored the committee to alter a specific phrase in the draft landmark designation ordinance recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission; they believe “presence of seating” should be replaced with “fixed theatrical seating configured in movie-palace style.”

“Destroying the seats in the Castro, the configuration of those seats, would be a final blow to film culture in San Francisco that’s already limping along,” said Barbara Gersh, a speaker who said she has lived in San Francisco for over 50 years. “The issue, as others have alluded to here, is wider than the seats.”

Barbara Gersh speaks during public comment at a hearing on the Castro Theatre's landmark designation on April 3, 2023.

Barbara Gersh speaks during public comment at a hearing on the Castro Theatre’s landmark designation on April 3, 2023.


The problem, as queer public historian Gerard Koskovich previously stated, is the ambiguity of the term, which could be “taken to represent any kind of seating whatsoever” and would fail to protect the existing orchestra-level seats. Notably, he added, they are a character-defining feature of the theater and fall within the second period of significance identified in the landmark designation fact sheet from 1976 to 2004, a period that marks the foundational era for the LGBTQ intangible cultural heritage.

Dan Sider, chief of staff at the planning department, clarified to SFGATE that the phrase “presence of seating” is not specific to the orchestra-level seats installed at the Castro Theatre, nor does it refer to seats that are configured in a movie palace fashion, or seats that are bolted to the floor. 

“Our position is that this place needs to operate as a movie theater and part of that requires seats,” Sider said. “What it does not preclude are seats that can flex to accommodate additional uses.” 

That being said, Supervisor Dean Preston said he was in favor of an amendment to clarify the language but noted that the city attorney’s office would require additional time for the decision to be finalized. The rescheduled meeting is set for April 17. 

“I have had fruitful conversations with APE and Castro Theatre stakeholders that lead me to be hopeful that we can get to the win-win-win that I have described elsewhere,” Mandelman said at the meeting. “But we’re not there yet.” 

And if they don’t reach an agreement?

“Don’t be yelling at me when this whole deal tanks,” Peskin said. “Just saying.”

The interior of the Castro Theatre.

The interior of the Castro Theatre.

Mark Mainz/Getty Images

Later this spring, a joint hearing between the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission will determine the legislation, the certificate of appropriateness, and both conditional use authorization applications for the Castro Theatre, though a date has not yet been determined, Sider said. 

While a long road lies ahead, Peter Pastreich, the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, said he feels optimistic about the outcome of Monday’s meeting. 

“It was exactly what should have happened. I think APE will be under some pressure to respond to the community, and what the community wants is activity in that theater every day as has been the case right until COVID hit,” he said. “I’m hopeful that between the Board of Supervisors, us and the community that they will realize they can’t just keep this theater open for the few days a month they want to put on programming.” 

APE spokesperson David Perry said the company shares everyone’s passion for the theater and “deeply appreciates” the people who spoke during public comment, regardless of their stance.

“Our continued thoughtful and cordial discussions with the leadership of the Castro [Theatre] Conservancy have led to a better plan,” he said. “Today’s continuance gives us additional time to work with them, and with everyone, who truly understands what it will take to save the Castro for future generations.”

Stephen Torres, Castro LGBTQ Cultural District executive co-chair, said the district also remains hopeful for the theater’s future. 

“I think all of the supervisors demonstrated their understanding of how important this community asset is,” he said.

This Friday, the district, which is part of the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition, is kicking off a “Castro in Exile” series with a “Grease” sing-along event at the Roxie Theater as a way of keeping the theater’s historic programming alive. APE’s proposed community benefits package, Torres said, doesn’t cut it. 

“They’re making these allusions to programming but haven’t hired any programmers,” he said. “The LGBTQ centered programming and film centered programming that has been part of the Castro for decades … taking that from being centered and boiling that down to percentages is disheartening. What so many people spoke to yesterday was what a culturally impactful loss these plans would be for not only the Castro, but the city and the world.”

Koskovich, whose research was cited in the landmark designation fact sheet, also called APE’s proposed breakdown of programming “a matter of grave concern.” At the same time, he feels hopeful that progress will be made.

“I’m honored to have been involved with the group of people working on the preservation who understand the city can’t afford to get this wrong,” he said.

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