Rialto Cinemas is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a big party at the theater in Sebastopol on Jan. 21.
Looking back at the last 20 years running the theater, owner Ky Boyd said, “It’s been a fantastic adventure.”
The Rialto opened its doors as Sonoma County’s first art house cinema in April 2000 in a location on Summerfield Road in Santa Rosa. Boyd remembers that at the time few people thought of Sonoma County as an art house market, and many predicted a quick demise for the business. He and his partner thought otherwise.
“We saw that there was a market here, that the audience existed. We just needed to provide the movies and show people that they would be there on a consistent basis,” he said.
It was a cause célèbre among the county’s cognoscenti in 2010 when the Rialto’s landlord declined to renew their lease. Four thousand people flocked to a Facebook page set up to support the theater, and 800 people attended the theater’s closing night party. For 20 long months, Rialto Cinemas went on the road — showing films at 6th Street Playhouse, the Jackson Theater and anywhere else they could find.
“We were like this traveling theater company,” Boyd said, “and then during that time Dave Corkill (the owner of the Cinema West theater chain) called and wanted to talk to us about Sebastopol.”
Boyd and his partner Michael O’Rand purchased what had been the Sebastopol Theater in April 2012, and they’ve been there ever since, showing what is now their signature of blend of art house films, the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, as well as Hollywood blockbusters.
“We started operating in Sebastopol in May of 2012. At first, we did some minor, cosmetic stuff, then we renovated the theater — seriously. We started in September 2014. It was an 11-month project that at times seemed like it would never end. I’m sure there were times the audience wondered ‘What the hell are they doing?’
“We enclosed the porch, expanded the lobby and brought the box office inside. We moved an auditorium wall to create space for a kitchen … and we created a grand staircase to go upstairs. It was a significant undertaking,” he said.
“It was all in the service of this goal that we had, which was to fully integrate movie going with food, beer and wine. That was the big picture goal from the time we first started looking at operating the theater in Sebastopol. It took us a little while to realize it, but it’s been great.”
Boyd said it’s become fashionable in the theater industry for theaters to offer food, beer and wine, in addition to the traditional theater snacks, but he said most theaters do it in a fairly limited way, purchasing products that simply need reheating.
“We took a different path,” he said. “We worked with a wonderful woman who lives in Sebastopol named Patti Stack. She was our first chef and kitchen manager and helped design the menu and train the staff.”
Boyd said everything at the Rialto Cinemas is made to order.
“Like when you order a pizza, it’s not a pre-assembled thing. We build the pizza custom for you.We make salad fresh. Everything is done to order.”
The menu is designed to feature things that you can eat either at tables in the lobby or sitting in a movie theater in the dark.
“We have these special trays that sit in the cup holder so you can you can take your food or your beer and wine and everything into the theater with you. It was all very carefully thought out.”
Boyd said they now have eight beers on tap, as well as a broad selection of 20 local wines.
“And of course we still sell popcorn,” he said with a laugh.
The Rialto’s film offerings are similarly distinctive.
“We have gotten very involved in what’s called in the industry “alternative content,” meaning things that aren’t movies.”
In addition to the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD, they have added the National Theater Live, the Bolshoi Ballet and 90-minute programs devoted to a specific artist or classical music composer.
As a part of their hybrid offerings, they also run mainstream Hollywood films and other films from national film distributors. Boyd said he considers film distributors one of his two audiences — the other being the people who fill the seats of the theater 365 days of the year. He said he has to make both audiences happy to keep the business going and get the films he really wants to show.
“Running a theater is a relationship business,” Boyd said.
In terms of working with distributors, he said you have to give a little to get a little. You take some films “that might seem like odd choices,” in order to get a crack at films your really want.
“I think the thing that being an exhibitor has taught me more than anything else is to be pragmatic and to always look at the bigger picture. It’s like we're playing this giant game of chess.”
Boyd said his philosophy of business is “Making money, having fun, doing good.”
“We have to be profitable,” he said. “Making a profit allows us to continue to invest in the theater. We want to have fun; we want to enjoy what we do … working with our staff and with the public. The doing good part is really the community groups part, finding ways where we can help organizations through film, whether it’s to raise awareness or raise money. Some of these events are really fun — like doing the ‘Grease Sing-along’ for the Sonoma County Library Foundation. Some of them are very serious. We’ve done a lot of documentary and narrative features on tough subjects: immigration, Alzheimer’s.”
“Engaging with the community — that’s the core of what we do, because we want the theater to be a good community citizen,” he said.
What’s next for the theater? Boyd said they’re planning on redoing the seats in the upstairs theater soon. Beyond that, he said they’re just going to stay the course.
“For the moment, we’ve done what we wanted to do in terms of the theater, and we want to keep doing what we’re doing: to continue to show great movies, engage with our customers and with the film distribution community and bring great events on screen. Our plan is just to continue doing what we do and doing it as well as we can do it every single day.”