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Protesters Rally Around Historic River Oaks Theatre As Weingarten, Tenant Struggle Over Lease

The River Oaks Theatre in Houston.

Stalled lease negotiations have led to mounting public tension over the future of Houston’s historic River Oaks Theatre.

Dozens of fans gathered at the theater on March 7 to protest the planned closure of the cinema, which has been financially battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Los Angeles-based cinema chain Landmark Theatres is the operator of River Oaks Theatre and has reportedly been in lease negotiations with landlord Weingarten Realty Investors since spring 2020, according to the Houston Chronicle

Weingarten owns River Oaks Shopping Center, where the theater has been located for decades. The current lease is due to expire at the end of March, but after nearly a year of negotiations, both parties have failed to reach an agreement.

The retail-focused development firm is in the process of renovating the River Oaks Shopping Center. Prior to the protest, Weingarten said that Silver Cinema Acquisition Co., which operates Landmark Theatres and the River Oaks location, had been a key component to the center.

“We have continued to work with the company who has not paid rent since March of 2020. Conversations have indicated that their business model does not support paying more than a fraction of the previous rent going forward. Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused many businesses in the entertainment industry, such as theaters, to fail,” Weingarten Realty said in a statement. Weingarten didn't respond to Bisnow requests for comment.

However, Landmark Theatres pushed back on the notion that it was asking to pay only a small fraction of its prior rent.

“Despite what is being reported, Landmark is not asking for rent that is a ‘fraction’ of the value of the lease. Just a fair number that we can pay while getting back on our feet,” the theater wrote in a Facebook post on March 4.

River Oaks Theatre is a rarity in Houston, opting to show a mix of new releases and vintage movies. The venue also hosted popular weekly productions of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, where audience members frequently dress up and sing along to the iconic film.

Movie theaters around the country have faced difficult odds in the face of the pandemic, with many closing for months on end. River Oaks Theatre was closed for nearly six months, from March 16 through Sept. 9. During that period, the corporate office also closed and all staff were furloughed, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema voluntarily filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week, one of the first theater groups in the U.S. to take that step.