Cobble Hill Cinemas, formerly known as the Lido and then as the Rio, feels a little bit like every movie theater you have ever been to. The air is slightly hazy with buttered popcorn dust, framed covers of old Photoplays jostle for attention with advertisements for dopey new rom-coms and a bank of gumball machines stands against one wall.
Cobble Hill is neither a multiplex nor a movie palace; the lobby is gussied up with gold paint, art deco plasterwork and rococo clouds, but its proportions are so small that patrons must wait on the sidewalk if they arrive more than 15 minutes before a show’s scheduled start time. There is a homespun quality to the place, its walls adorned with slightly clumsy murals of Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx. It seems, in other words, like a memory, like the kind of place that must have closed down a decade or two (or three) ago.
Movie theaters have long been marked for certain death, after all, and none more so than smaller, neighborhood institutions like Cobble Hill, which did in fact go dark for half-a-dozen years in the late 1970s. These days, in the era of Netflix and iPads, the movie-house eulogies have been louder than ever. Mark Harris mourned “The Day the Movies Died” in a 2011 GQ article; Slate’s Andrew O’Hehir followed suit a year later pronouncing movie culture dead, even if the studios were still “cranking out massively expensive, effects-driven franchise pictures that can play around the world. “But don’t worry,” he added, “new movies will be released on any Pad you have, streaming, screening, and available for interruptions of all sorts. ‘Moviegoing’ may become as quaint a term as ‘home theatricals.’” David Denby decried the shift to digital projection in The New Republic and predicted that it would “inevitably lead to foreclosure for most movie theaters.” Even Steven Spielberg thinks that the film industry’s implosion is a foregone conclusion.
So why is it that at the moment when we should all be retreating to the isolation of our couches to enjoy the most satisfyingly atomized viewing experience man has ever known, theaters and screens have been popping up in neighborhoods all across New York? And not just any movie theaters, but small, film buff-beloved, independent, art house-style affairs.
“For a long time all the stories about New York were about how it was losing movie theaters,” Ross Melnick, an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California Santa Barbara and the co-founder of Cinema Treasures, an online movie-house database, told The Observer. “Now there are cinemas opening, but it’s the mom and pops, not the ones that you would have expected in the 1990s.”
In Williamsburg alone, there are six cinemas of recent vintage, from tiny single-screens to the uber-popular Nitehawk, a hipster hotspot on Metropolitan Avenue that serves drinks and dinner themed to its art house fare. This kind of post-popcorn and Milk Duds model popularized by Alamo Drafthouse, a small Austin, Texas-based chain that has plans to open its first New York City venue in downtown Brooklyn.
New screens have also opened (or are opening) at BAM, MIST Harlem, and DCTV, and there’s also a plan to bring movies back to the 3,400-seat United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. Not to mention the recently-opened Bronx Documentary Center, Dumbo’s ReRun Gastropub and a “drive-in” for straphangers coming to the Queens Museum.
“Everyone said that people weren’t interested in going to the movies anymore, but it was my gut feeling that a neighborhood needs a theater,” said Harvey Elgart, the now-retired projectionist who re-opened Cobble Hill Cinemas in 1982 and is also behind Kew Gardens and Williamsburg Cinemas, a seven-screen he opened in 2011.
“Watching a movie with other people, it’s such a different experience than watching it by yourself. You want to laugh with other people, or if it’s a drama, you come out crying. And for the people who are single, what a great idea to be able to go to the movies and you’re not alone.”
From the beginning, audiences have gone to the movies as much for the theaters themselves as for the films they showed. The first movie theaters drew their audiences and their mores from the vaudeville houses, burlesque, magic lantern and minstrel shows that came before. Rather than repetitive or repeatable exhibitions, each screening was a singular, shared social experience.
“The experience of ‘going to the movies’ equaled, and often surpassed, what was seen on the screen, writes Maggie Valentine in The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theater. “The theater was central to the experience, and therefore, to the memory, which is, in fact, what movies were selling.”
Between 1947 and 1957, film industry profits dropped by 74 percent, as audiences turned to TV and abandoned the urban centers where theaters were located. At the same time, small, independent operators, empowered by the 1948 Paramount Pictures antitrust case, lured some Americans back to the movies with gimmicks like 3-D glasses, horror movie hoaxes and drive-ins. Such playful, event-based practices laid the groundwork for midnight movies and the cult film phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s, ushering in an era that many consider to be the golden age of movie-going. Then VHS came along.
The first video stores struck a chord with a society that had, by the late-1970s, slipped into a kind of social and cultural retrenchment, a miserly go-it-alone mentality borne of failed social movements, economic stagnation and urban decay. Video stores obviated the need to venture out to the dilapidated downtowns where movie theaters had been located since the early days of cinema.
The rise of the multiplex a short time later laid waste to many historic, downtown theaters, with the number of screens skyrocketing even as venues vanished. Even if they were a logical means of keeping movie theaters alive, catering to the anti-social preferences of a population that was embracing malls, cul-de-sacs and a stay-at-home sensibility even when they went out. Highway-side behemoths that were overwhelming owned by large media conglomerates, multiplexes dispensed with the communal impulses of their predecessors: marquees were exchanged for billboards, ticket booths receded inside and oversized seats guarded against the possibility of brushing a neighbor’s arm.
On a balmy night this past summer, hundreds of visitors streamed into the BAM Harvey, packing the 775-seat Brooklyn venue for the premiere of Blue Jasmine, which opened on the theater’s enormous Steinberg screen the same night it did in Manhattan. It was a homecoming of sorts for both Woody Allen (even if the Brooklyn-born director sent a handful of cast members to attend in his stead), and for the historic 1904 theater, which operated for decades as a picture palace before sinking into decay.
BAM had opened the 35-by-19-foot screen a month before, more than two decades after renovating the theater into a live performance venue. The state-of-the-art screen can be rolled into a box beneath the theater when not in use and offers a dramatic complement to the more modestly-scaled BAM Rose cinemas down the block.
“Now we can hold films with live music, red carpets, premieres,” said BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “It’s the kind of place that makes going to the movies feels special.”
Asked if she had been apprehensive about adding a screen during such a tumultuous time in the film industry, Ms. Brooks Hopkins scoffed.
“New York is the kind of city where people like to go to cultural events, they like to go out to dinner, they like to go out to the movies,” she said. “If you didn’t, why would you ever live in New York? It’s too much of a pain in the neck.”
When Matthew Viragh, the founder of Nitehawk Cinema, moved here from Texas, he was impressed with New York’s diversity of theaters, but he still found the experience of going to the movies “sort of stale and impersonal.”
The feeling was so strong that he opened Nitehawk before he successfully lobbied the state legislature to overturn a law that banned serving alcoholic beverages at movie theaters.
“A lot of movie theaters and chains have been really stuck in this rut and not done anything to elevate the experience,” opined Mr. Viragh, who is currently looking for space to open another theater.“I think multiplexes were a reflection of the culture in the 1980s and 90s, it was part of the mall culture. But there’s been a backlash and now people want something more personal.”
Increasingly, big theater chains agree. Now that brew and views and cinepubs have established themselves as viable businesses, major circuits are mimicking their thriving indie brethren. Some, like Dallas’s Grand 24, the first megaplex in the country which opened in 1995 with 24 screens and seating for 4,900, have scaled back the number of screens and added amenities like bowling alleys, bars and clubs, while others have introduced food and drink service, according to Patrick Corcoran, a spokesperson for the Theater Owners Association.
“The trend is toward really differentiating your experience,” he said.
Chris Havens, the director of commercial property at Apts and Lofts, told The Observer he has seen a recent uptick in demand for movie theater space. “The fact that they’re seeking space at all is amazing to me,” he said.
Even video stores are adding screens: Videology, a nearly 10-year-old Williamsburg rental joint, saw its numbers plateau and then drop several years in a row before owner Wendy Chamberlain hit on the idea of adding a bar and a screening room.
“Obviously people watch stuff at home on their laptops,” said Ms. Chamberlain. “But they come out here to have a communal experience, to laugh with other people and have a few beers. And as far as I can tell, the internet is not going to replace alcohol.”
The damage done to the multiplexes by Netflix and OnDemand seems to have created a space for smaller, independent theaters to succeed, much like the independent bookstores who clawed their way back into the market after Amazon destroyed Borders and enfeebled Barnes and Noble. Which is not so surprising: Americans still love the anonymous conveniences and generic comforts of corporate chains, at the same time that they crave authentic experiences, artisanal goods and exquisite curation. And while theaters will never reclaim the number of spectators they had before the rise of TV, on a national level they’re doing quite well: box office revenues continue to rise annually, along with the number of screens.
This makes for that rarest of opportunities: a chance for both mega-chains and ultra-bespoke establishments to thrive. “There’s a lot of resistance from certain groups who look at multiplexes in a pejorative way, but I see it as part of the ecosystem,” said Professor Melnick, but he noted that it was nonetheless imperative for a movie theater to claim its niche.
“Cinemas chains have to think very carefully about their branding, having a curator versus just a booker at a place like Nitehawk or Alamo makes a huge difference. People follow certain programmers and chefs and bookstores because they’re tastemakers; people don’t want an anonymous experience, they want something unique.”
On a recent Friday night, the sidewalk outside Cobble Hill was, as usual, packed with movie-goers waiting to get inside, as it has been nearly every Friday night for the past three decades, with the exception of a brief blip when Mr. Elgart sold the theater to Clearview Cinemas. According to Mr. Elgart, Clearview scrapped the repertoire of art house and family films that he had lovingly perfected and was soon struggling with the line-up of action and horror movies they had introduced. He was so appalled that he bought the theater back.
“They had no clue,” Mr. Elgart fumed. “They were booking for the entire circuit, not the neighborhood.”
They had made the mistake, in other words, of thinking that Cobble Hill’s audiences would be most likely to buy a ticket if it showed the kinds of movies whose virtues were all special effects-related and could, therefore, be impressively augmented by surround sound, high-definition and a huge screen. But as anyone who has ever purchased an $11 ticket to the theater can tell you, Cobble Hill does not number among the city’s most technically-stunning venues.
It was, in essence, the same mistake that critics who live in constant fear of the next technical innovation make over and over and over again—believing that we go to the movies seeking something as simple as entertainment. But the social aspect of movie-going is not just some holdover from the time when technology necessitated that we all watch together, it’s elemental.
We are, of course, seeking many things when we go to the movies: entertainment, excitement, escape, but perhaps nothing so much as the feeling of companionable contentment that is particular to both cities and movie theaters—the not-alone aloneness that comes from sharing an experience with strangers. We go to the movies compelled by vague desires and inarticulate needs, inchoate yearnings that seem like they might, somehow, be obscurely soothed by sitting in dark theater, surrounded by other people who share the same sense of longing.