But his retirement was brief. It was not even retirement; Santikos kept busy as monarch of a mighty commercial real estate empire. Even when selling his movie business, he retained ownership of the theater buildings and surrounding properties. So he was still landlord of the largest movie chain in San Antonio in 2001, when Regal, the company that absorbed Act III, filed for bankruptcy. Santikos bought back the Embassy, Galaxy, Northwest, and Westlakes Theaters not because he missed the movies but because it was the most profitable use to make of the buildings he owned. Now, with the imminent opening of two new theaters and one renovated one, he is poised to be more regal than Regal, the king of San Antonio cinema again.

Scheduled to open Friday, February 7 at Bandera Road and Loop 1604 is the new Silverado, a 16-screen multiplex designed by Charles Dodge, the architect responsible for Regal's industrial mammoth Alamo Quarry Theater. The 14-screen Mayan Palace, on Southwest Military Drive, opens in May. And the six-screen Crossroads Theater, at Loop 410 and IH-10, has been completely stripped and is targeted for reopening in April or May.

Santikos became the formidable player that he is by keeping his cards close to his investment, and a conversation with him is as muddling as it is revealing. "I'm devoting seven days a week to serving the public best," he declares, without quite defining that service. What difference, aside from convenience, will expansion of Santikos' business make to San Antonio moviegoing? Will it simply mean 30 more rooms in which to view Spider-Man, Austin Powers, and Santa Clause 2? For viewers perennially frustrated by the limited local repertoire, will the additional auditoriums cause us to react with old whine about new bottles?

Santikos talks more readily about building design than the films that flicker within. He is proud of returning movies to the South Side and of the innovative self-service concession stands he is installing there and in the new multiplex on Bandera. They will be equipped with stadium seating and digital sound, though not, at first, digital projection. Maya, the Hindu term for the illusory nature of the sensible world, might have been coined to describe motion pictures. But the grandiose Mayan Palace takes its name from its campy Mesoamerican motifs. The Silverado will be the architectural equivalent of a cowboy movie.

Asked what kinds of films the new multiplexes will offer, Santikos replies: "Everything we can get our hands on."

He is enthusiastic about the "diversified" neighborhood that surrounds the Silverado, a short drive from modest homes and affluent ones as well as the city's largest university. To serve that varied clientele, he aims to bring: "Everything that's being made."

He had also aimed to open the Silverado in November. Since India alone produces about 1,000 films a year, and since he never before brought more than one Indian film a year to any of his theaters, it is easy to be skeptical about the accuracy of Santikos' aim. However, it is hard not to be heartened by another of his promises: "We plan to reintroduce the Crossroads as the theater for art films," he announces. "All of its screens will be showing art films."

Until the early 1980s, Santikos ran the Olmos Theater, on San Pedro a few blocks above Hildebrand, as a repertory cinema, showing foreign, independent, and vintage films on a schedule that changed frequently. When the Olmos became a bank, Santikos used his four-screen Central Park Fox for "art" films. The Fox was eventually razed, and the Crossroads became the only place in town screening foreign and independent cinema. After Santikos sold the Crossroads, Regal reassigned that role to its newly built Fiesta Theater. Regal still owns the Fiesta and typically dedicates one or two of 16 screens to a foreign or independent feature. The nearby AMC Huebner also often sets aside one of its 24 screens for alternative fare.

Distributors once nicknamed San Antonio, a perfect test market for mindless action movies, "Ramboville." But reemergence of the Crossroads as a full-service art theater could turn the Alamo City into Truffautville, the crossroads for sophisticated cinema. As conscious creations, all films are "art" films, and the Godfather sequence demonstrates that big budgets and studio backing do not preclude artistic excellence. However, "art houses" traditionally offer alternatives to conventional Hollywood entertainment. The new Crossroads might well serve as a reliable showcase for Miramax and Sony Classics instead of Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. But will it draw from more than "independent" subsidiaries of media conglomerates?

Asked about his commitment to foreign films, Santikos, who spoke Greek and French but no English when he arrived in America at 19, replies: "There are no foreign films any more - not more than one a year." It is true that Hollywood has driven many filmmakers in other countries out of business, or into the business of making movies in English. But when I begin to enumerate foreign-language films - Y Tu Mama También, Fast Runner, Das Experiment, Merci Pour le Chocolat, Happy Times, etc. - that managed to make their way here in recent months, it is clear that Santikos has not been going to the movies, at least not to the Fiesta and the AMC Huebner. I hope that the buyer he hires to program the Crossroads is aware that Russian Ark (Russia), City of God (Brazil), Hero (China), and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (France) have not yet come to San Antonio.

Insisting that the local market is now saturated, Santikos denies any plans for further expansion, within San Antonio or into other cities. He praises his competitors and claims he will not try to drive them out of town, as he did the poor idealist (poorer $40,000 by the end of his brief venture) who transformed the Woodlawn Theater into an art house - from January to April, 1986. No one from AMC, which owns more than 3,500 screens in over 50 cities, would respond publicly to Santikos' initiatives. James Harshbarger, alternative film marketer for Regal (which operates in 32 states) commented: "We do not anticipate any change in Alternative Film programming and look forward to continued success." If they stay in this fray, San Antonio could soon become a choice place to savor choice films. •



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