Arts & Culture: Curtains Up at a Cinematic Crown Jewel

By Jennifer Blot

The Mostly British Film Festival that Jack Bair cofounded is returning to San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre, a venue
he helped rescue from demolition 15 years ago. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee.

A baseball exec’s passion for saving historic theaters led to the founding of a popular film fest that returns this month.

Next month, San Francisco Giants EVP Jack Bair will hopefully be gearing up for opening day. Right now, however, it’s all about opening night, the official ushering in of the Mostly British Film Festival on March 10, marking 13 years since Bair cofounded the event as a way to draw audiences to the Vogue Theatre in Presidio Heights.

Though they may seem like night and day, it’s not a total stretch to say that baseball had something to do with the eight-day film festival — which in past years has attracted VIP guests ranging from Minnie Driver and Malcolm McDowell to Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt — or Bair’s volunteer work with the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which raises funds and advocates for historic cinemas. Bair met his MBFF cofounder, Ruthe Stein, while working with her husband, former SF planning director Dean Macris, on the Giants’ ballpark project. And the nonprofit SFNTF, which recently raised more than $1.2 million for renovations at Opera Plaza Cinema, has long been a collaborative effort between Bair and fellow Giants EVP Alfonso Felder.

Bair and Felder began championing historic theaters two decades ago, not long after Bair noticed his then-neighborhood movie house, the 1920s Moorish Revival Cinema 21 on Chestnut Street, boarded up. “It was going to change use and be a Walgreens,” he recalls. “It just struck me as sad. It was a large and kind of grand theater that I had gone to many times. I felt a call to action to do something to preserve it.”

Bair says he and Felder began brainstorming ways to help save local theaters while also coming up with realistic ways for them to generate revenue and bring foot traffic to other businesses in the area. In the case of the Cinema 21, the building did become a Walgreens on the ground level — and the top floor welcomed its next incarnation, the Marina Theatre.

Since joining the Giants 29 years ago, Bair has navigated plenty of prickly projects as the team’s chief legal officer and EVP, and president of the real estate entity behind the Mission Bay project. “You have to recognize that the pathway from idea to approval is a journey with unforeseen twists and turns,” he says.

When he learned of the potential closure of the Vogue Theatre on Sacramento Street, which was slated to be torn down to make way for condos, its history as one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the country was too important to overlook. And so, Bair says, “we ended up purchasing the Vogue, which is one way to preserve a theater.” That was 2007.

“There’s a sense of having saved some of these theaters that people feel really good about supporting the festival.” — Jack Bair

Bair wanted to boost programming for the Vogue, he says, “to set it apart and help it create a reputation as a movie theater with a little extra character.” So he turned to Stein, the longtime movie editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, and together they launched a foreign festival that’s “mostly” British, but sometimes includes films from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland and beyond. In doing so, they highlight English-language films that might not otherwise make it to the big screen in the United States.

This year’s edition of the event, traditionally held in February, was pushed back a month for pandemicrelated reasons (last year it was canceled altogether). Fortunately, the “plucky, all-volunteer film fest,” as Bair refers to it, has developed a cadre of loyal supporters as well as partnerships with the City’s British, Irish and Australian consulates. The 2022 lineup includes The Duke, based on the true story of a British taxi driver who steals the Francisco Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery, and the documentary The Beatles and India.

“There are a lot of logistics involved in putting on a film festival of movies from a myriad of different countries, most of which have not actually been released yet,” says Adam Bergeron of Cinema SF, the company that oversees the day-to-day operations of the Vogue. “It is an intricate and time-consuming puzzle that Jack is able to negotiate with aplomb, despite his very busy schedule.”

Stein focuses on the festival programming, while Bair handles finances and logistics. Sometimes this means helping arrange transport and accommodations for VIP actors and producers, which can turn into something more — like spending time at the Marin Headlands, followed by drinks at the Big 4 on Nob Hill, with Sir Bob Geldof, who asked Bair to show him around after a brunch event.

Stein calls Bair “a fount of knowledge about everything” and praises his unwavering calm. That said, there have been unnerving festival moments — like the time the Vogue’s projector malfunctioned and a screening was moved to the Balboa Theatre at the last minute. Or the time when Bair and his team realized at the 11th hour that the film they were sent for opening night, which drew patrons in period costumes, wasn’t the advertised Kate Winslet feature The Dressmaker, but a different film from the 1980s with the same title.

“What I have found is, over the years, our audience has been really understanding and supportive,” says Bair. “I think there’s a sense of having saved some of these theaters that people feel really good about supporting the festival and the foundation and that kind of homespun nature of it all.”

As he prepares for his 13th film festival, and embarks on his 30th season with the Giants, Bair doesn’t seem to sweat the small stuff, much like the mantra of that famous 1930s British poster: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Mostly British Film Festival

March 10–17 Vogue Theatre 3290 Sacramento Street, San Francisco.

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