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Balboa Theatre
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Serafina Kernberger Balboa Theatre

The best San Francisco movie theaters for new releases and indie films

Film buffs rejoice—mainstream multiplexes haven’t stamped out classic San Francisco movie theaters screening indie, retro and art-house fare

By Matt Markovich and Shoshi Parks

San Francisco has appeared in more than 4,000 movies and, over the years, most of them have been shown at one of the city’s best movie theaters. Grande dames like San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, and Oakland’s Grand Lake Renaissance Theatre and Paramount Theatre for the Arts have been lovingly restored and maintained, while smaller venues, such as the fog-enshrouded Balboa in the Richmond District still cling to the bygone era of fresh popcorn and noir glamour. Settle in for one of Hollywood’s hottest blockbusters or show up for one of the long list of film festivals on the calendar of San Francisco events, including the Noir City Film Festival, the SF IndieFest and the San Francisco International Film Festival.

RECOMMENDED: Outdoor movies in the Bay Area 

San Francisco movie theaters

1. Castro Theatre

Movie theaters Independent The Castro

One of the country’s last, great independent theaters, the Castro Theater has been entertaining San Franciscans since 1922. Inside, the auditorium is an elegant mix of art deco, Spanish and Asian influences: a dream space of classical murals and rare old film posters, with ceilings that shimmer with gold and films introduced to the strains of a Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that rises from beneath the stage. At the Castro, the films lean more towards the classic and obscure and include the Noir City Film Festival (January) and family-friendly singalongs.

Grand Lake Theatre
Photograph: Yelp/Alex T

2. Grand Lake Theatre

Movie theaters Oakland

Named one of the top ten vintage theaters in the country, this 1920s-era gem is as beautiful as it is eccentric. The original luxurious, gold-leafed main theater was restored in the 1980s and two new screening rooms, the vintage-Hollywood Egyptian-style Auditorium 3 and the Moorish-designed Auditorium 4 were added. Grand Lake typically plays the new blockbusters (including 3D features) and, although they don’t have the bells and whistles of some of the Bay Area’s newer theaters, they do offer fun perks like free popcorn Mondays and $5 ticket Tuesdays.

Alamo Drafthouse
Photograph: Courtesy Alamo Drafthouse

3. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission

Movie theaters Mission

For 20 years, Alamo Drafthouse has been disrupting multiplex-moviegoing with their intimate theaters and direct-to-seat food and beverage service. The Mission’s version, which opened in 2015, is set inside a 1920s-era theater beautifully renovated to preserve and enhance much of its original character. The flicks here range from the newest Hollywood hits to appropriately-timed throwbacks like Die Hard and Home Alone at Christmas-time. Grab a drink at the vintage-inspired Bear Vs. Bull bar then head to your reserved seat where a server will bring you everything from truffle popcorn to prosciutto burrata pizza and draft beer to cocktails.

4. Balboa Theatre

Movie theaters Outer Richmond

This great local cinema is the crowning jewel of foggy Outer Richmond’s small shopping district on Balboa Street. Opened in 1926 and designed by the Reid Bros, whose other iconic San Francisco creations include the original Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel, this cozy movie house screens everything from new releases and second-run films to indie and classic noir double-features.


5. Roxie Theatre & Little Roxie

Movie theaters Mission Dolores

San Francisco's oldest theater, the Roxie opened a century before it became a community-run nonprofit in 2009. World premières of cutting-edge documentaries, classic film noir and '60s horror flicks are only a taste of the impressive range of films staged at this 238-seat gem, which lays claim to the title of the "second-oldest continually run cinema in the world." Next door, the 49-seat Little Roxie has a great projection set-up, a terrific sound system and a program of stuff too weird even for its edgy parent theater to show.

Sundance Kabuki Cinema
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Niall Kennedy

6. AMC Kabuki 8

Movie theaters Japantown

most of the hallmarks that made its predecessor the city’s best movie theater: reserved seating, dine-in options and 21+ shows where alcohol is permitted. Though their movies skew more towards big-budget Hollywood films than they used to, comfortable seats and intimate screening rooms—some with shared tables—make the Kabuki an ideal place to catch the newest release. One welcome change? Order food like southern style chicken tenders or ultimate nachos before finding your seat and they’ll deliver it to you when it’s ready.


7. Ninth Street Independent Film Center

Movie theaters SoMa

The Ninth Street Independent Film Center is the culmination of years of work by eight arts organizations who banded together on a mission to connect independent filmmakers to the public. The resulting 22,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility has a ground floor screening room, multiple editing rooms for filmmakers, and the film/video archives of several of the participating organizations. Films here are not on the typical movie-theater schedule so check their calendar for events hosted by organizations such as the San Francisco Cinematheque, LGBT film group Frameline, and  the Center for Asian American Media.

Paramount Theatre
Photograph: Courtesy Paramount Theatre

8. Paramount Theatre of the Arts

Theater Oakland

After years of neglect, the Paramount Theatre, which opened in 1931, was restored by the city of Oakland and the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association in 1972 and added to the National Register of Historic Places. The space is multi-use—you’re as likely to see a ballet or symphony performance here as you are to see a film—but when it’s movie-time, the filigreed Art Deco setting turns a regular-old screening into something special. Show up early for one of their movie classics showings and catch a performance from the Paramount’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ and the chance to win prizes in the theater’s own “Dec-O-Win” game of chance.


9. AMC Metreon 16

Movie theaters Yerba Buena

If you absolutely, positively have to see a just-released blockbuster in 3D IMAX with the latest sound system technology, this is the theater to visit. Always at the cutting edge of movie screening technology, the Metreon is either a feast for, or an assault on, the senses—probably depending on your age.


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