Historic California Theatre permanently closed after denied lease renewal

photo of the California Theatre
Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
Following the decision to deny lease renewal, Landmark’s California Theatre on Shattuck Avenue and Oxford is set to permanently close. The COVID-19 pandemic and reliance on external contracts with landowners have contributed to this loss of a historic Berkeley landmark.

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High school student Ryland Walker Knight sat on the edge of his seat, eyes peeled open at the movie screen ahead. Struck by the beauty of the production, he dragged his friend to Berkeley’s California Theatre for its second screening of “Inland Empire” in two days.

Today, filmmaker Knight is both shocked and saddened to hear Landmark’s California Theatre will permanently close due to the landlord’s decision to withhold the renewal of its rental contract at the property located on Shattuck Avenue and Oxford.

Upon hearing the news, Knight felt instant nostalgia for high school years spent attending films such as “Inland Empire,” “Pulp Fiction,” “12 Monkeys” and “Eyes Wide Shut.”

California Theatre has been temporarily closed since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to vice president of marketing and publicity at Landmark Theatres Margot Gerber.

Vaccination rollouts slowed the opening of in-person theaters, Gerber noted. Due to mask restrictions and limited consumer demand, Landmark Theatres decided to open its theater sites in waves beginning Aug. 2020.

“Our pattern of reopening theaters had a lot to do with if we didn’t want to overscreen an area,” Gerber said. “If we had, and in many cases we did, more than one theater that was really close to each other we just opened the one to concentrate business that existed into one of the theaters.”

According to Gerber, Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas opened first for its larger nine-screen capacity. Landmark Theatres intended to eventually reopen California Theatre as well, but was restricted by the external lease agreement.

Since Landmark Theatres does not own the land its theaters operate on, it is reliant on external contracts with landowners. Some of these landowners reassessed their priorities for properties rented out after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Gerber.

“We’re sad to lose any theater that’s been in our chain for a long time, but because we don’t own these buildings we’re at the mercy of the landlords and what they want to do with the properties,” Gerber said.

Knight described the theater as classic. Built as a live venue in 1913, California Theatre was taken over by Landmark Theatres in 1994. Originally single-screen, the historic theater was adapted to fit three screens in recent years.

Changes to the theater reflect a long history of Berkeley, as well as an emblem of the future.

“I worry that going to the movies is going to become rarer and rarer,” Knight said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

The loss of the Berkeley monument reflects a changing culture of film screenings, according to associate professor of film and media Jeffrey Skoller. Theater closings have grown exponentially as a result of home streaming and city gentrification, Skoller noted.

According to Skoller, the economic stress faced by independent theaters calls for reform.

“In order for independent and neighborhood movies to survive and continue to contribute to the cultural life of the city, they need to be rethought as not-for-profit cultural spaces and subsidized by (the) city,” Skoller stated in an email. “These theaters are social spaces and that is the real future of the movie theatre.”

Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lilybutton27.