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Prime Cinema is closing its theaters in Sonoma

When Brian and Katherine Young took over the nine-screen theater at Boyes Hot Springs in spring 2021, they knew they faced a challenge.

Theaters were closed for months during the pandemic, but the couple hoped business would bounce back. But the many months without the smell of fresh popcorn and silent, darkened cinemas changed audience viewing habits.

“Unfortunately, with studios not releasing their best films immediately and cinema audiences watching films at only about 50% of pre-COVID levels, this was not enough to sustain this cinema,” the Youngs wrote in a press release announcing the theater’s closure announced.

Prime Cinemas will turn off the lights at the Fiesta Shopping Plaza on Highway 12 on April 2, closing the Sonoma Valley’s only multi-screen cinema. The single-screen Sebastiani Theater continues to operate on the Plaza as the region’s only remaining cinema.

“Unfortunately, now that the space will no longer function as a cinema, the community will have to travel a little further to see the latest Hollywood releases,” the Youngs wrote.

The theater first opened in 1994 when Cinema West’s Dave Corkill opened four screens at 200 Siesta Way. The theater was expanded in 1998 and 2009, growing to a total of nine screens. But as the pandemic closed theaters in the name of public safety, the small Petaluma-based theater chain struggled to persevere, eventually closing its Sonoma and Tiburon operations in October 2020.

After being vacant for a year, the Youngs took over the Sonoma lease, terms of which were not immediately available. As he prepared to open for Memorial Day in 2021, Brian Young told the Index-Tribune: “We just need the volume to support it. It’s hard to predict how things will develop in terms of attendance, so we need to make changes until people start coming back to theaters like they have in the past.”

As the industry struggled to recover from the pandemic, film studios began releasing major titles to streaming platforms alongside theatrical releases, a practice that became so popular it continued post-lockdown. According to a 2022 Forbes article, 55% of viewers now prefer to watch movies at home. Forbes cited a survey that found “49% of moviegoers stopped buying tickets before the pandemic. The North American box office earned $4.5 billion in 2021, up from $2.27 billion in 2020 but down from $11.4 billion in 2019.”

With cinema operators deriving the majority of their revenues from concessions, the decline in admissions at Prime Cinema was no longer sustainable and forced it to close. Calls to the Dwares Group, which owns the Sonoma 9 cinema building, were not immediately answered.

“This theater has given young people literally hundreds of first jobs and we know a lot of memories were made here,” the Youngs wrote.

One of those jobs was filled by Bryan Martinez, who started working at Cinema West in March 2013 and eventually became General Manager at Prime Cinema. Upon hearing of the theater’s closure, he shared memories of the quiet power of a community theater where its first manager, Terry Fautley, spoke of “selling dreams for a neighborhood.”

“It was just a throwaway line at the time, but as I’ve grown in this industry I’ve learned it’s far beyond a dream,” Martinez wrote. “I have learned that the theatrical experience is the vehicle in which people are offered opportunities, opportunities to dream, opportunities to celebrate on the best days of their lives, and opportunities to escape on the worst days.”

He wrote about first dates, regulars who became like family, and the power to escape his troubles in a dark theater with a rich cinematic experience.

“Although this may be the end of this book, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that we have been successful in our journey. We haven’t failed. We’re going to the top,” Martinez said.

Prime Cinema will present films for the Sonoma International Film Festival this week. All gift vouchers can be redeemed until April 2nd. The Youngs advises film lovers to keep an eye on their Facebook page for more information on recent days of operation.

“Thank you to everyone who came out to help us save the Sonoma 9 Theater,” the Youngs wrote. “We appreciate you and your love of movies on the big screen.”


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