The news that a new movie theater might be coming to Healdsburg swept through town like advance notice on a blockbuster, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way.
At a recent private after-hours gathering at Cartograph Winery, a local tasting room, displays of the theater’s storefront, seating schematics and other visuals were presented about a proposed educational and commercial “cinema center,” details that were leaked on social media over the weekend.
Visuals in an Instagram post from @shoplocalhealdsburg showed a modern well-designed entry, comfortable screening chairs and a seating chart for three small screening rooms of between 26 and 56 seats, meeting and classroom space, plus an event space in an adjoining courtyard.
In a video, Kathryn Hecht, executive director of Alexander Valley Film Society (AVFilm), explained that the educational nonprofit had looked at the Raven Film Center as a possible location for a combination commercial and art-house venue. “But at the end of the day, it was the numbers, the numbers didn’t work—the theater is too big.”
What they sought, she said, was an “opportunity to create a state-of-the art, responsive, smaller footprint, more responsible carbon footprint—a cinema that reflects contemporary understanding of the movies and the audiences.”
That meant a different theater. From the real estate available in downtown Healdsburg, a location was found for the planned Plaza Cinema Center, in the 300 block of Healdsburg Avenue.
Old timers might remember the site as the backstage of the old Liberty Theater, later the Plaza, a 1,000-seat stage and movie palace that was torn down about 1965.
More recently, the building held brewing tanks for the Bear Republic, which left town for Cloverdale three years ago. It is accessible by a breezeway from Healdsburg Avenue which connects to West Plaza Park. The courtyard could be used as an event space, according to the plans previewed at Cartograph.
But while the lease for the building has been approved by the AVFilm board, it is far from a done deal: The group is seeking financing sponsors, and they’ve got a ways to go before their hoped-for 2023 buildout.
As AVFilm’s Community Lead Chelsea Kurnick said, “That is certainly the aim, but it depends on a lot.” The group is seeking funding for the project, and while their donations have exceeded $1 million so far, the goal is thought to be more than twice that.
“The post caught us by surprise,” said Kurnick, who said the Sept. 24 gathering was by invitation only. Still, she added she was heartened by the “excitement and anticipation” the post generated. “It’s really great to see that.”
Lining Up for Tickets
The news struck a chord because since early 2020, Healdsburg hasn’t had a movie theater. The Raven Film Center closed with the pandemic, and a few months later the Tocchini family’s Santa Rosa Entertainment Group of Santa Rosa, which had operated the Raven since 2006, announced it would not be reopening.
The Film Center was started in 1996 by Don Hyde, who had taken over the venerable Aven Theater on North Street in 1987, remodeled it and renamed it the Raven. It quickly became a popular traditional movie theater and concert venue in town. When the former JC Penny’s became available in the nearby Mitchell Shopping Center, Hyde ambitiously took it over and built the four-screen Raven Film Center.
But Hyde left Healdsburg in 1999 and the Film Center lost momentum. The main Raven on North Street stopped showing regular movies in 2005, when it became the Raven Performing Arts Theater; in 2020, the Tocchinis let their lease on the Film Center lapse.
Several outside theater groups have inquired about the Film Center location since it closed, at 415 Center St. Even while it was the Raven Film Center, however, it always struggled. With the Airport Stadium 12 multiplex only 11 minutes south down U.S. 101, the audience for even a small theater in Healdsburg is limited.
According to more than one regional independent theater owner, the amount asked for the Film Center location was just too high, especially given the uncertain future of movie attendance during and following the pandemic. The 15,000 square foot facility, with four screening rooms of various sizes, remains for lease at $1/square foot a month.
The news that a well-regarded local nonprofit was cooking up a plan to open a year-round cinema in the heart of Healdsburg was welcome. Still, questions about the prospects for success persist. The screens at the Raven Film Center were significantly larger than those planned for the Plaza Cinema Center, yet the Tocchinis gave up on the Healdsburg location in 2020 because it didn’t make money.
Kurnick insisted, “There are other theaters operated by nonprofits; there is absolutely a model for it. Folks are committed to keeping the community experience of going to the movies alive.
There are a handful of other nonprofit-run theaters in the state, the nearest being the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, operated by the California Film Institute.
“We’re excited to add a community gathering space that will be exciting for locals, exciting for visitors and add something for everyone that doesn’t presently exist,” finished Kurnick.
For more information about the Plaza Cinema Center, email the executive director of AVFilm at [email protected]