Blocked from showing first-run art films by the collective clout of Berkeley’s two major theater operators, Allen Michaan has given up the Oaks Theater at 1875 Solano Ave.
“Metropolitan Theaters of Los Angles bought out my lease, and they’re taking over as of Friday,” said Michaan, a Berkeleyan best known as the owner of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and the author of the pointedly political messages that adorn its marquee.
“The Oaks is the best theater in Berkeley in the best neighborhood in Berkeley,” said Michaan. “The problem is that we were not able to get the first-run art films we wanted.”
He said he was unable to get the movies he wanted in the Oaks because of the power Regal Entertainment and Landmark Theatres have over movie distribution in the city.
Landmark Theatres, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest art house chain,” controls 204 screens in 14 states, including those at three downtown Berkeley locations: Shattuck Cinemas, the California Theater and Act 1 & 2.
The chain also owns a near neighbor of the Oaks—the Albany Twin at 1115 Solano Ave.
“Landmark has succeeded in dominating the art film market,” Michaan said, effectively shutting his four theaters out of the market for first-run features.
Regal Entertainment, which owns the UA Berkeley 7 multiplex on Shattuck Avenue, also owns two other East Bay multiplexes, the UA Emery Bay Stadium 10 and the Regal Jack London at 100 Washington St. in Oakland.
The 6,000-screen chain is the nation’s largest and wields tremendous clout in locking up first-run films.
The Oaks’ new operators, Los Angles-based Metropolitan Theatres Corporation, have been a family-owned business since its inception in 1923. The firm is now run by David Corwin, the fourth generation of his family to serve as president of the firm.
“We don’t plan any dramatic changes,” Corwin said of his Berkeley acquisition. “We have access to a bit more films that Allen did, and we hope to expand the offerings.”
With 115 screens across North America, Metropolitan has its strongest presence in San Barbara County, home of its flagship theater, the Arlington in Santa Barbara, a 2,000-seat venue featuring live performances and films.
“There are similarities in the marketplace and demographics” of San Barbara and Berkeley, Corwin said.
“With better film offerings, we will be a very viable alternative to the more crowded Shattuck Avenue theaters,” he said.
The Oaks will also include more family fare on its bill to draw in residents of the local neighborhood, he said.
Michaan’s Renaissance Rialto, Inc., has been widely praised for restoring classic movie houses in the East Bay and was honored last year by the Art Deco Society of California “for preserving extant art deco theaters as first-run enterprises and creating a new repertory house to showcase vintage film.”
The revival house, run from the base theater at the former Alameda Naval Air Station at 2700 Saratoga St., closed earlier this year due to small turnouts. Michaan retains the lease and uses the theater as an auction room for his Auctions by the Bay business.
While the Grand Lake at 3200 Grand Ave. is Michaan’s best-known showcase, he also controls the Orinda at 2 Theater Square in Orinda and the Park Theater, which remains a single screen venue in Lafayette.
Michaan said he will certainly retain control over the Grand Lake, but he was less emphatic about the other two houses.
“Right now, I’m concentrating on the auction business,” he said.
Michaan came to Berkeley in the late 1960s, showing classic films on the UC Berkeley campus and in the Berkeley High School Auditorium.
He was 20 when he opened his first theater, the Rialto, in a vacant warehouse on Gilman Street in 1970. In the following years, he offered films in as many as 19 locations.
He acquired the Grand Lake in 1980, and has turned the 1926 movie palace into one of the Bay Area’s best-loved theaters, repeatedly voted “Best Theater” by readers of the San Francisco Chronicle and named as one of America’s 10 great venues for classic films by USA Today in 2001.›