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There is not much time left to take advantage of the space — the two years will pass faster than the pop of a flashbulb — so by all means make it one of your destination cinemas.

A 91X radio sticker marks the reviewer’s favorite seat at Landmark Theatres HIllcrest Cinema #1.

4. Landmark Theatres Hillcrest Cinema #1

3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-819-0236

Bonus Features: Quality films, spotless presentation, a knowledgeable staff, and no more Stella Artois beer commercials before each movie.

Number of Seats: 316

Total Number of Screens: 5

Landmark Hillcrest

3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest

Built by Landmark Theatres in 1991, Hillcrest Cinemas stands firm in its commitment to bringing the finest in art, independent, and foreign films to the community. Prior to Reading Cinemas’ arrival in 2008, chances are if it was a quality art film, it played at either Hillcrest, the Ken, the La Jolla Village, or the late, lamented Cove, all Landmark Theatres.

Hillcrest has been forced to change with the times, particularly between January and April, when the smaller art films take a backseat to potentially moneymaking awards winners and contenders. Far be it from me to begrudge their success, as these films, along with compensatory hits such as The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite, ensure that the artier product, prone to underperforming, will follow in their wake.

It is almost unfair to include the #1 Hillcrest on this list because it feels more like home than an afternoon at the movies. Not long after I hit town in 2001, it became clear that the majority of the morning press screenings would be held there. A disc jockey at a nighttime promotional show was handing out bumper stickers and one just happened to find a permanent home plastered to the bottom of my favorite seat to help mark the territory. You never know when that morning cup of coffee is going to hit, and on the rare occasions that a mid-movie visit to the restroom is in order, the sticker makes it easier to find my place in the dark.

Two thousand screenings later, the sticker remains in that treasured spot. I invite you to try it out, just not when I am in attendance.

Handcrafted employee art for upcoming pictures is showcased in the lobby of the Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center.

5. Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center #10

5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa, 619-465-3040

Bonus Features: Side-to-side masking and the largest screen(s) in town!

Number of Seats: 625

Total Number of Screens: 10

Reading Grossmont Center

5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa

Size matters! Built as a Pacific Theatre in the early ’90s to replace an existing triplex, the Grossmont Center 10 is home to the largest viewing surfaces in the area. Both theaters #1 and #10 house enormous 60-x-24-foot screens.

As with Reading Cinemas Town Square, an ever-changing touch of homemade craftsmanship in the form of employee art, designed to herald upcoming pictures, can be found situated behind the lobby ticket booth. Sure it’s kitschy, but so is much of what plays on-screen. These minimalist attempts at ballyhoo add an expressive touch that in their own small way hearken back to the Golden Age of moviegoing.

6. Edwards Mira Mesa IMAX

10733 Westview Parkway

This colossal IMAX screen at Edwards Mira Mesa has 625 seats in front of it.

Number of Seats: 312

Total Number of Screens: 18

Edwards Mira Mesa

10733 Westview Parkway, Mira Mesa

Built in June 2000, of all the venues up for discussion, Edwards Mira Mesa is the most efficiently run megaplex in the county. After seeing many a movie under their roof, I have the pleasure of reporting that it’s the one venue where I’ve yet to make an un-billed mid-movie cameo in the lobby to grouse about presentation issues.

Is it IMAX or LIEmax? The consensus among the cinematic cognoscenti is that in order for a film to be true IMAX, it must be projected in 70mm on a screen that measures at least 52 feet high and 72 feet across. The digital IMAX house at Edwards Mira Mesa is a reasonable facsimile thereof.

There are currently five IMAX houses serving San Diego County: Edwards Mira Mesa, AMC Mission Valley 20, AMC Palm Promenade 24, AMC Westfield Plaza Bonita, and the domed IMAX at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. The latter was the first giant screen house to grace our town and is the real deal when it comes to fitting the proper technical specifications. With this tradition of excellence comes the equally customary selection of non-narrative, wide-gauge science and nature documentaries that tend to resemble high-end versions of the National Geographic Channel. And no matter how many times they try to solve the problem, the seams in a domed IMAX screen remain annoyingly visible during brightly lit scenes.

The closest we come to genuine IMAX is the Edwards Spectrum IMAX Theater in Irvine. Of the four local-area IMAX screens I’ve visited (one day, Plaza Bonita), Mira Mesa is the amazing colossal screen du jour. Management was loath to release specific screen dimensions, but a quick eyeballing gives it a slight edge over its counterparts in Mission Valley or Palm Promenade.

The 40 ft. screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 in Mission Valley the local jewel in AMC’s crown.

7. AMC Mission Valley #17

1640 Camino Del Rio North

Bonus Features: Curved screen and side-to-side masking.

Number of Seats: 323

Total Number of Screens: 20

AMC Mission Valley

1640 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley

AMC’s first stadium-seating theater erected in San Diego, the Mission Valley 20 is one of the chain’s top performers. The place is fairly imposing; no local megaplex has more screens. You might want to think about renting a golf cart to transport you to the back auditoriums.

AMC Mission Valley was my first brush with stadium seating. While vacationing in 1995, the year the theater opened, I stopped by for a showing of the relatively obscure romantic comedy Paperback Romance. It was like stepping onto Noah’s Ark, had the vessel come equipped with high-backed turquoise blue chairs and raked rows. Once seated, you could barely see the tops of other patrons’ heads, and the unobstructed view contributed to a surprisingly pleasurable viewing experience.

It’s a crunch to get in on the weekends, and while some of their smaller cookie-cutter auditoriums are cramped and impersonal, the 40-foot screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 the local jewel in AMC’s crown.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a venue with sharper focus and more comfortable seating than the Museum of Photographic Arts Theater in Balboa Park.

8. The Museum of Photographic Arts Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater

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Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 7:17 p.m.

What a great feature! I've spent the last two years working on an upcoming cover story called "Bigscreen San Diego," covering the largest of the long-gone local moviehouses we didn't already cover in the previous features on downtown's grindhouse row ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ), San Diego's much-missed drive-in theaters ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) , and local porn theaters (most of them former all-age houses - http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) - reading this story has inspired me to dig in and finish the dang thing. This city has a pretty impressive movie theater history, with a few great houses still screening - thanks for chronicling!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 8:13 p.m.

Always nice to see the Ken Cinema get some love. But where do you get the notion it was built in 1912? By all accounts it was built in 1946. Are you conflating it with the late, lamented Guild, which was built in 1913? If you have first-hand research to back this new date for the Ken's birth, do share, por favor.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 9:51 p.m.

A couple of Reader comics set at the Ken -




MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 10:10 p.m.

Here's a friendly challenge for you, Jay: find a photo of that crazy mural that used to adorn the Ken's foyer back in the '70s, the one with Marilyn Monroe and Frank Zappa. I thought the Internet would find it for me in a flash, but no such luck.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 10:57 p.m.

Got multiple pics in the archive! May take a bit to dig out 'n' scan, but I'm on the case - we even have construction photos of the Ken being built!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 10:32 p.m.

Scott -- looks like you're right about the 1912 date. So... never mind!


monaghan May 16, 2012 @ 10:50 p.m.

It's a diminished list. No Cove, no Unicorn, no Guild, no Cass Street or the one over on Grand or Garnet -- was it called the Fine Arts? -- or the one on Park Blvd. or in Ocean Beach on the main drag. Plus a lot of bigger ones like the Loma and the one west of the U-T in Mission Valley that used to flood in heavy rain.

Gone, gone, those places where I saw "The Big Lebowski" and "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Wizard of Oz," "Ran," "Do the Right Thing," "The Yellow Submarine," "Saturday Night Fever,""Titanic." Now they're converting North County multi-plexes into food-and-drink-barcalounger venues. No thanks.


Jay Allen Sanford May 16, 2012 @ 11:01 p.m.

Pretty much all of those ran midnight movies in their final days, some going to porn (including the Roxy in PB) - the Unicorn was so geared toward "head" movies that they screened trippy films on the CEILING of one room, with blankets and pillows for people to recline on.


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 11:06 p.m.

monagan -- the theater on Garnet was indeed the Fine Arts, where I first encountered Werner Herzog through "Aguirre" and later saw Kurosawa's "Ran" ten times. Of all the movie house I once worked at, only two are still standing, and only the Ken is an operational theater.


Scott Marks May 16, 2012 @ 11:06 p.m.

Thanks everybody! Can't wait to read your piece, JAS. It's not often that I inspire people to do anything but turn off their computers.

Mordecai: I did my research. According to the San Diego Historical Society the Ken was built in 1912 and they have the documentation to prove it. I'll be writing a blog about it soon. Watch the skies!


MordecaiWatts May 16, 2012 @ 11:29 p.m.

Thanks, Scott. I called the Ken after my initial comment and learned about the info at the SDHS from the manager (hence my second comment). When I worked at the Ken in the '80s it seemed accepted wisdom that the theater had only been in operation since the late '40s, so I look forward to learning more about its "lost years" when you blog about it. Hope there will be pictures.

This means that the Ken actually predates the Hillcrest (later known as the Guild) by an entire year.


MordecaiWatts May 17, 2012 @ 12:01 a.m.

Extra kudos for recognizing Jennifer Deering, who knows a thing or two about the cinemah.


Scott Marks May 17, 2012 @ 1:19 p.m.

Tell me about it. As a former theatre manager myself, I stand in awe of her ability to put on a show.


Writeon May 17, 2012 @ 2:59 p.m.

Firstly, great article Scott and equally great cover art by David O'Keefe!

When I saw the cover, I was hoping my fave was included! I was not disappointed as the Ken made it at # 2! The theater is a throwback! The offerings are great! The popcorn is delicious! The quarterly schedule of films is very helpful! The overall experience of the neighborhood is also great! I enjoy the indie and foreign films without sheep-fed, corporate, top heavy CGI to boost sub-par stories! I also don't mind the subtitles. The lack of inane chatter and cellphone antics says something about the attention span of the audience! The neighborhhood also includes Ken Video next door (a San Diego jewel!), the Kensington Library, Kensington Cafe (mochas and happy hour!) and Ponces! The Ken is well worth my fifteen mile drive from the coast!

I am sorry to hear about the pending demolition of the screens at Hazard Center. I attended the San Diego Latino and Asian Film Festivals at Hazard Center on numerous occasions over the years. San Diego has an impressive variety of film festivals! By the way, where will these festivals be held in the future?

I do miss The Cove that was on Girard in La Jolla. The Cove used to show a lot of French films. Fortunately, The Ken includes many French films in their selections.

I do like the offerings of the Reading Gaslamp. They do a good job including non-blockbusters such as quality documentaries. Boo to the non-freebie parking dealio. But there are options!

I also miss the offerings at MoPA. I especially remember the student screenings. Maybe when the economy finally rebounds MoPa could give their film project another go? The parking scene at Balboa Park has a bad rep especially at night but I have always found parking. Generally speaking, I think San Diegans could show more love for the museums in Balboa Park. Not every city has such a selection of quality museums in one place. Maybe we take our museums for granted?

The Landmark Hillcrest has had very good films over the years especially, the documentaries but the parking can be vicious. The last time I was there, I almost burned out my engine while trying to exit their parking garage via the incline ramp.

I will be visiting the theater in Coronado. Such restorative efforts deserve my support!

Great story! It will make it to the reference pile on the coffee(?) table!


xians421 May 17, 2012 @ 4:06 p.m.

IMHO the Ken would be #1 IF they had functional air-conditioning.

As far as the "Lie-MAX" controversy you hit the nail on the head. With no true IMAX screens dedicated to first run big studio films it is worth the drive to Irvine to see a reasonable facsimile. The stadium seating and the HUGE screen (it seems to be almost four stories tall) combine to create an unforgettable experience.


LebowskiT1000 Aug. 15, 2012 @ 2:09 p.m.

Nice list! I've only visited a few of these locations, I'm really looking forward to visiting the Ken cinema at some piont, as with the La Paloma in Encinitas. I've recently made it my mission to visit as many different theaters as I can, for no other reason than just to say, "Hey, I saw __ there!"


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