Hiding in plain sight in the Tenderloin are more than 20 of San Francisco’s least-known architectural treasures: the film exchange buildings. These unique structures are an architecturally significant link to a lost world: the chaotic, rough-and-tumble early days of the film industry.
Film exchanges evolved from a fundamental change in the movie business. When theater owners first began showing films in the late 19th century, they had to purchase them from the producers. As Max Alvarez notes in “The Origins of the Film Exchange,” a 2005 Film History article, a 15-meter reel of film could cost an exhibitor $25, and it was neither returnable nor refundable. Starting in 1896, some industry entrepreneurs came up with an alternative business model: renting films to theater owners.