Josh Dulaney, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/08/2011 07:12:10 AM PST

SAN BERNARDINO – Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” catapulted the movie to the top of the box office.

But in that same year, the downtown CinemaStar movie theater was closed.

Now city officials are poised to strike a long-term deal with Regal Entertainment Group to bring movies back to the shuttered cinema at Fourth and E streets in what they say is a critical step toward downtown revitalization.

The City Council on Monday will hold a public hearing to discuss a lease agreement with Regal and its overall vision for downtown.

The initial lease would be for a 10-year term, with renewal options every five years up to 34 years, said Emil Marzullo, interim director of the Economic Development Agency.

Some say a modern cinema that can compete with the likes of Krikorian Redlands Cinema 14 will keep moviegoers and their cash in the city.

They also believe a sparkling movie theater can be the anchor venue needed to attract restaurants and other businesses necessary to turn the area into an entertainment destination.

“I’m very, very excited and very supportive of the Regal Theater,” said Councilwoman Virginia Marquez, whose ward includes downtown.

The theater could hit $10 million in gross ticket sales in the first three years, Marzullo said.

The city plans to enter into lease negotiations with Regal executives next week and expects the negotiations could take 60 days.

The proposal has been met with some skepticism, including business owners and others who suggest the city should wash its hands of the building by immediately selling it to another company.

The city must also overcome a public perception that downtown is an unsafe area that will never climb out of its economic doldrums and become a thriving cultural hub.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” said 27-year-old Jacob Justus. “There’s not a lot of money in downtown San Bernardino. My question is to the city (officials) and the city planning office … what are they doing to propel the entertainment business?”

Justus said San Bernardino is a college town that has never made a good effort at catering to young adults looking for the quality nightlife found in other cities with college campuses.

The city should consider options such as medium-sized clubs and concert halls instead of another movie theater venture, he said.

“Try something new at least,” he said.

As for downtown itself, Justus said it has a terrible reputation in the Inland Empire.

“It is a dangerous place,” he said. “These are people who don’t have a strong sense of community.”

Based in Knoxville, Tenn., Regal is the largest theater operator in the United States, with more than 540 movie theaters.

Its California locations include Edwards Ontario Palace 22 and Imax theater as well as locations in Riverside, Corona and La Verne.

The plan calls for the EDA, which owns the property at 450 N. E St., to lease the theater to Regal, which will modernize 14 of the 20 screens there.

Four of the rooms that hold screens could be converted to restaurants.

Of the remaining two, one may be used as a storage space for the nearby California Theatre, a live performance venue, and the other perhaps for a comedy club and community meetings, officials said.”Just on the face of it, it sounds like a good business idea,” said Jason E. Squire, a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “You always want to place theaters where there’s little competition.”

The city has worked to dispel concerns over the project, including a series of community meetings in recent weeks led by Marzullo.

Marzullo on Thursday characterized past efforts downtown as a “failed field of dreams.”

“What we’re trying to do is not make that mistake again,” he said.

Marzullo believes past public investments have been made with insufficient plans to ensure they encouraged private investment.

He has cited the original development of the downtown movie theater and the Inland Empire 66ers baseball stadium built during the 1990s as examples.

Neither investment was tied to plans for additional private investment, which resulted in both sitting in isolation and attracting little private investment and economic growth.

Marzullo has said CinemaStar did everything needed to go out of business, including not cleaning the carpets, and having their last movies ending before 9 p.m.

After CinemaStar closed its doors, the council acting as the EDA’s board gave Maya Cinemas, which now operates theaters in Bakersfield and Salinas, an exclusive right to negotiate.

That deal fell through when Maya executives did not meet a council-imposed deadline in April to complete financial arrangements.

The EDA then marketed the vacant theater building to mid-size and large theater chains, and received proposals from Regal and seven other theater operators.

Regal’s proposal was one of four the EDA selected for further analysis.

Consultants retained by the agency determined that among the original eight proposals, Regal created the greatest return on investment of public dollars and also had the strongest marketing power and financial strength to support cinema in the downtown area.

“Regal has the financial wherewithal to withstand the economic ups and downs,” City Manager Charles McNeely said.Marzullo said Regal leases movie theaters instead of owning them, so the proposal isn’t a real estate deal, but a theater deal with an eye toward economic development.

Still, he agreed with criticism that the city doesn’t have all the money needed to develop downtown, saying that’s why public-private partnerships such as the one with Regal is vital.

Officials have said since the announcement of their intent to lease with Regal, several nationally known retail companies have expressed interest in doing business in the city.

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