WHEN YOU WALK into the Smith Rafael Film Center, you can instantly tell it’s run by people who care.
It’s a movie house with a soul.
Originally opened in 1920 as the Orpheus Theater, the Rafael saw its current era begin in earnest on April 16, 1999, with completion of a years-long renovation project championed by Mill Valley Film Festival executive director Mark Fishkin after the devastation of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. With help from the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency, Bay Area architect Mark Cavagnero and many others, the theater sprang back to life, and this year marks its 20th anniversary. “It was like going to war to build it,” recalls Fishkin, who’s also founder and executive director of the California Film Institute. The project added two screens, state-of-the-art tech and an updated aesthetic.
Since reopening, the Rafael has served as center of gravity for the MVFF and CFI, with countless filmmakers, actors and artists passing through its doors. From legendary figures like Ang Lee and Sean Penn to rising talents like Damien Chazelle and Mahershala Ali, a who’s who of industry movers and shakers have presented and discussed their work onstage in Theater 1.
But the Rafael is a tribute to great cinema, not Hollywood hype. When Fishkin first set out to reimagine the theater, he envisioned it as a world-class establishment where filmmakers, regardless of status or budget, could share their work in an intimate, respectful environment.
“When we talked about building the Rafael, we talked about how independent filmmakers had the worst venues (to show their films in),” Fishkin says. “Our hope was to create the best possible venue that they could have, with state-of-the-art equipment and a setup for special events.”
There is no theater quite like the Rafael, and for the past 20 years, Fishkin and Cavagnero’s original design has remained as attractive and functional as ever. Watching movies in Theater 1 is a distinctly immersive experience, Theater 2’s art deco adornments give it an atmosphere all its own, and Theater 3 offers the most advanced technological presentation.
But what ultimately breathes life into the place are the audiences, filmmakers and staff who come here each week to engage in conversations about films and filmmaking.
“I don’t think there’s another venue in Northern California that has as many personal appearances, from local documentary filmmakers to some of the greatest (cinema) talents in the world,” Fishkin says. “It’s the home of the Mill Valley Film Festival, and it’s in the DNA of everything we do.”
In 2023, CFI will take ownership of MVFF’s other main movie house, the Sequoia in Mill Valley, and undertake renovations. “We hope to make the Sequoia just as unique and hopefully give it just as old and wise a soul as the Rafael,” Fishkin says.
For now, the local community is celebrating the Rafael’s successful two-decade run. For Fishkin, the true measure of that success is the outpouring of affection and support shown by loyal moviegoers. “Twenty years is a long time for this theater,” he says with a smile. “People come up to me all the time and tell me how much they appreciate the theater, and that’s really the best compliment we can get.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “The Big 2-0”.
Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.