Did San Antonio's shuttered arthouse theater the Bijou do enough to keep the lights on?

The Santikos chain never seemed motivated to expand the theater's core base.

The Bijou is located inside Wonderland of the Americas mall. - Google Street View
Google Street View
The Bijou is located inside Wonderland of the Americas mall.

The Bijou, located in the Wonderland of the Americas mall, shut its doors early this month, ending the 35-year stretch during which it served as San Antonio's primary arthouse cinema.

Theater owner Santikos didn't respond to the Current's request for comment, but Andrew Brooks, executive director of sales and marketing for the Alamo City-based chain, told KSAT News a "changing dynamic of art films and our lease coming up for renewal" prompted the closure.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic reached U.S. shores in early 2020, it was evident that the way audiences were watching movies had changed amid the boom in streaming platforms. But understanding the nature of that change doesn't make the Bijou's closure any easier for local cinema buffs.

The first film I ever saw at the Bijou was the Academy Award-nominated 2001 Mexican film Y tu mamá también by director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón. At that time, going to the Bijou was the only option for a young cinephile to see the critically acclaimed, coming-of-age drama before it ended up on VHS months later. Today, you can catch the film with a subscription to Amazon Prime. The industry was still a couple of decades away from watching a studio and a platform such as HBO Max or Disney+ cut a deal to release a movie on a streaming service the same day as its theatrical release.

When the spread of COVID-19 forced theaters to temporarily shut down two years ago, the movie-watching landscape was reshaped forever. While a global pandemic became the impetus for studios adjusting the way they released projects, the health crisis didn't create the shift, merely accelerated it.

'Sooner or later'

The writing had been on the wall for years suggesting movie theaters could be left behind as technology advanced.

As theaters slowly began to reopen when COVID numbers declined, it was evident that arthouse venues like the Bijou were in trouble. Not only was there low attendance at the Bijou, Santikos began booking tentpole movies alongside the few independent films that had the prospect of pulling bigger audiences.

"The Bijou closing was something that I had expected was going to happen sooner or later," said Nathan Cone, vice president of cultural and community engagement at Texas Public Radio and the curator of the Cinema Tuesdays series, which screened at the Bijou pre-pandemic. "Traffic at the Bijou had always been lighter than other [local] theaters, but it was definitely sparser than before when it reopened."

While films such as The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter might have drawn fans to the Bijou if they weren't also accessible on Netflix, the idea that audiences won't go to an arthouse theater to see a movie already on streaming platforms is, at best, misguided.

Numbers game

Whether they're exclusive to a streamer, high-profile indie films like CODA and Nomadland will always find an audience — especially when they start winning awards. But these aren't the only films that arthouse theaters such as the Bijou can book.

Given release schedules, the Bijou could have easily booked a new indie film on each of its six screens monthly. According to research from statista.com, an annual average of 724 movies were released in the United States from 2011 to 2019. That number goes down to 661 when you average in the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

Santikos may argue that audiences aren't likely to visit the Bijou to see recent critically acclaimed indie, international and documentary films such as Language Lessons, Mass, Son of Monarchs, Shiva Baby or Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. But they can't argue that there aren't enough to go around. Indie films streaming exclusively on platforms are only a small fraction of the content out there that the Bijou could have supported.

Not expanding the base

Over the past 35 years, it felt as if Santikos was championing those independent and international films by devoting an entire theater, the Bijou, to audiences looking for something beyond the latest Marvel fare. The chain pledged to support independent filmmakers by booking art films through a "Bijou Series" at some of its other theaters — Aline and Mothering Sunday are currently screening at Santikos Embassy, for example — but is that enough?

Doesn't a city the size of San Antonio deserve at least one arthouse cinema devoted to new releases? Who better to manage it than a locally owned theater chain that already prides itself in supporting the community through its charitable giving?

As much as I have loved going to the Bijou since seeing Y tu mamá también there 20 years ago, I always had one beef with the theater. And that's how little it engaged the audience. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've talked to San Antonio residents who either had no idea that the Bijou still existed or that an independent film they were interested in seeing had already been pulled from the marquee the week prior. Why didn't Santikos cross-promote the Bijou at its other theaters? Why did company officials think giving a screen to Spider-man: No Way Home was going to keep the Bijou alive?

The Bijou never had a problem booking the indies that appealed to a certain segment of SA's filmgoing public, but Santikos never seemed interested in expanding its core base. Now, unfortunately, those loyal moviegoers are left without an exclusive theater to cater to their specialized cinematic tastes. If arthouse cinemas really are a thing of the past, let's hope art film aficionados don't stop seeking out those hidden gems.

It will certainly be more difficult now without the Bijou around to make that connection.

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