Interview: New Owners of the Oaks Theater

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 09:39:00 AM

It might take five men from India to save Berkeley’s historic Oaks Theater.  

Bhaskar Molakalapalli, Srini Vejalla, Satish Rayapudi, Satya Penmetsa and Rama Sagiraji have more than complicated last names in common—they share a vision for the future of cinema which they hope will turn the Oaks Theater around. 

As joint partners of Merriment Media Works, the company which leased the Oaks from Berkeley Realtor John Gordon recently, the five have a lot to do to reinvent the 1920’s Art Deco cinema into an attractive destination once again. In a recent email interview with the Planet, they explained a little about how they would go about doing it. 


Daily Planet: Why did you decide to lease the Oaks Theater? 

Merriment Media: We have experience in showing movies in India and we also distribute Indian movies in the United States. So we decided to enter into the movie theater business in the Bay Area. We have screened some Indian movies at our partner theater Serra Theaters in Milpitas which received tremendous response. So we decided to expand our business—we did some research on demographics in the Bay Area and singled out Berkeley as a potential candidate for art, foreign as well as English movies. 

Daily Planet: What can you do for Oaks that the former management could not? 

Merriment Media: Good question. Previously people in the East Bay got a chance to watch only a few foreign language films but predominantly second run English movies at Oaks. Our idea is to screen first run and second run English movies as well as art and foreign language films. Our main idea is to bring Asian and Indian movies to Oaks. Our research shows the Oaks’ neighborhood has a diverse culture which encourages good foreign language movies. 

We want to mix English as well as foreign language films with English subtitles so that East Bay movie-goers can get the ultimate experience. 

Daily Planet: Tell us about your plans for the new theater. 

Merriment Media: We are planning to improve the ambiance of the theater by making some small modifications with the City of Berkeley’s approval. We are currently in the planning stage. We are also trying to bring in a few Asian, Indian and other foreign language films which have received good reviews in other parts of the U.S. We are planning to use digital projection which makes watching movies a wonderful experience. 

Daily Planet: We heard you are interested in bringing dinner and drinks to Oaks? 

Merriment Media: Yes, we do have plans to introduce dinner and drinks while watching movies. We have studied how favorably people are responding to this concept—from Southern California to Washington to Illinois. It can be called the reinvention of the movie-going experience. But our idea is just in the preliminary stage and will have to go through all kinds of formalities first. 

Daily Planet: Can you tell us a bit about your experience in the movie theater industry? 

Merriment Media: We buy Asian and Indian movies for theaters all over the United States and screen them. Some of the theaters are our partners. As a result, we have pretty good experience in dealing with foreign films. Right now we have a partnership with Serra Theaters in Milpitas which mainly shows Indian movies. 

Daily Planet: Are you excited to come to Berkeley? Are you worried about the city’s stringent zoning laws or neighborhood opposition? 

Merriment Media: Yes, we are very excited to come to Berkeley The city has historically encouraged foreign films. It has a world renowned university which caters to students all over the world, diverse neighborhoods and a melting pot of cultures. From what we have heard, the Oaks’ neighborhood is simply excellent. 

Daily Planet: Would you like to hear from the community? 

Merriment Media: We are aware that the local community wanted to save the Oaks’ Theater. We are proud that we are meeting their interests and demands. We hope Berkeley residents, especially those living in the Thousand Oaks neighborhood, will encourage good films as they have done in the past irrespective of region or language so that we can bring some excellent art and foreign language films to the Oaks theater. We firmly believe that ‘for art there is no language.’ We would like to announce that we launched a new website www.BerkeleyOaks.com and we welcome everyone to visit it for movie schedules. We will be introducing a ‘feedback forum’ very soon, where people can share their thoughts and suggestions for the theater. Oaks will be managed by one of our partners, Rama Sagiraju.