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Healdsburg’s Raven Film Center closes permanently

The operators of Healdsburg’s Raven Film Center, the city’s only movie theater, have opted to permanently close six months into a pandemic shutdown that has devastated local businesses, including California cinemas shuttered since March.

The Santa Rosa Entertainment Group, which runs four other movie houses in Sonoma County, chose not to renew its lease at the 1950s-era North Street shopping center, letting its deal lapse in June. Dan Tocchini, president and chief executive officer of the company, and his wife, Amy, the theater group’s secretary and treasurer, last week walked away from negotiations to keep the cinema open, according to Eric Drew, broker and owner of Healdsburg-based Artisan Sotheby’s International Realty, which represents the building’s landlord.

“We just got notice that it’s not going to work late last month,” Drew said. “I think it is the pandemic and what it’s going to take to get the audience back.”

Before that, the two parties were engaged in discussions to waive rent in exchange for a share of ticket sales during the recovery period, paid to the landlord once the theater was allowed to reopen, according to Drew. Those negotiations did not produce a deal, he said.

The Tocchinis have run the four-screen theater at the Raven Film Center since June 2006, when they took over for a previous operator who left the business due to lagging ticket sales and monthly losses in the thousands of dollars. The family has a long history in the theater business in Sonoma County, dating to 1926 when Dan Tocchini’s father, Dan Tocchini Sr., built one of the first theaters in Santa Rosa.

It is unclear if any of the company’s other theaters in the county are affected by the decision. The Tocchinis could not be reached for comment over two days, and a company representative on Friday deferred to the owners.

The company’s theater portfolio includes: Summerfield Cinemas, the Third Street Cinema and the recently refurbished Roxy Stadium 14, each in Santa Rosa, and the Airport Stadium 12 just south of Windsor. The family also operates five theaters throughout Southern and Central California.

Movie theaters, including the Raven, have been shuttered along with other businesses deemed nonessential since mid-March, when spread of the coronavirus led to county and statewide stay-home orders. Local cinemas and museums attempted to reopen at 25% capacity in July, but state moves to rein in a surge of COVID-19 cases ended those plans.

The pandemic and related recession is forcing many small business owners into wrenching decisions, particularly as emergency federal aid and loans dry up.

“My assumption is everybody is suffering, and I don’t know how long certain ones can hang on,” said Healdsburg Councilman David Hagele, who has close ties to the city’s business community. “Having the Raven close, that’s just going to be brutal. From a personal level, I don’t even want to tell my kids.”

An agreement is in place to allow the Santa Rosa Entertainment Group to house its theater equipment at the Raven for now, in case a buyer or new tenant emerges, Drew said. He and building owner Holbrook Mitchell are working to try to attract another theater operator at the site, which is just a few blocks from the city center.

But the outlook for the theater industry remains clouded by the pandemic and increasing competition from streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, which continue to gain a greater foothold in the U.S. entertainment sector. An extended closure into the winter months and holiday season — two of the most profitable times for the industry — could set off a wave of theater closures across the country, with the largest blow hitting independent operators.

“It’s really too soon to tell. It’s a matter of how long this continues,” said Milt Moritz, president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Theater Owners of California/Nevada. “It’s desperate times, no doubt about it. I’m sure we’re not alone, and every retail business out there is facing a similar situation. It’s going to be an interesting next six months.”

Ky Boyd, owner of Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol, said he faces that same sobering reality. He still has no idea when he’ll be able to reopen the nine-screen theater, which in January celebrated its 20th anniversary.

“I kind of gave up on timelines in July,” Boyd said. "I’d love to say we’ll be open in October, but my confidence level on that goes up and down on any given day.“

Boyd also operates a pair of East Bay theaters under the Rialto brand, in Berkeley and El Cerrito, and in March was forced to lay off his entire staff of 65. With ongoing financial hurdles, he launched a GoFundMe campaign last week to help survive the rest of the year, and into 2021 if necessary.

Boyd said he and a few core staff have worked to bolster cleaning and social distancing measures in line with the national CinemaSafe program for when they can finally welcome back movie guests. Even then, times will be tight, he said.

“We know that when we reopen, it likely will not be profitable, and our goal is to open at break-even basis,” Boyd said. “It takes a huge emotional toll. I’m not ashamed to say there are days where you don’t want to get out bed and just hide from the world. We’re just trying to make the best of it every single day and deal with the challenges that each day presents.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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