Big Screens in the Big Apple: Boxoffice Takes the Temperature of the New York City Theatrical Scene

The movies love New York, and New York loves the movies. In the nearly 100 years since the exhibition industry first came to the Big Apple, the theatrical landscape has blossomed, resulting in a diverse mix of cinemas, from multiplexes packed with luxury amenities to art house cinemas low on cutting-edge technology but high on customer loyalty. And yet—as is always the case in the exhibition arena—things are changing. New cinemas are opening as cultural mainstays are shutting their doors—or engaging in renovations to keep up with the times. To get a snapshot of this evolution, Boxoffice spoke with some of the people behind the city’s theatrical scene.

First, the bad news: Last year, two NYC institutions—the Upper West Side’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the West Village’s Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema—shut their doors. In 2016, the famed Ziegfeld Theatre, one of the few movie palaces still left in New York City, became an event space. When it comes to succeeding (or not) in New York City, Landmark Theatres’ CEO Ted Mundorff explains: “The high price of real estate is a big factor.” It was real estate concerns that led to the Sunshine’s closing. Though the theater was “welcomed by the specialized community,” Mundorff says, “having only a 15-year lease prematurely shortened its life.”

Landmark at 57 West, courtesy Landmark.

But Landmark still has a presence in New York City. In 2017, the chain opened the Landmark at 57 West. Like the late Sunshine, it skews more toward art house cinema. Unlike the Sunshine, it offers the sort of amenities—like a full bar and electric recliners—that many moviegoers have come to expect. 

“Theaters and buildings don’t last for a lifetime,” Mundorff says. “As they age, they need to be remodeled to keep up with technology. If not, they will close to make room for a newer, more comfortable model.”

Three art house institutions—the Quad Cinema (owned by Charles S. Cohen of the Cohen Media Group, which purchased Landmark Theatres earlier this year), Film Forum, and the IFC Center (formerly the Waverly Theater)—are determined not to be pushed out. The three cinemas, which between them have racked up over 150 years of screening movies, either have completed (the Quad and Film Forum) or are in the process of undergoing (IFC Center) major renovations.

The Quad, New York City’s first multiplex, updated its tech with the help of Christie and Barco, added digital screens in the lobby, and added a bar for post-movie (or, heck, pre-movie) conversation. The IFC Center’s in-progress renovations will include additional screens and a much-needed larger lobby; anyone who’s walked past the Sixth Avenue cinema during prime movie times has probably seen the standard crowd of ticket holders gathered underneath the marquee. 

The Film Forum’s renovations, completed in the summer of 2018, are probably the most interesting because they’re the least noticeable. Seats and sight lines were improved and a fourth screen was added, granting the cinema “greater flexibility in terms of acting quickly on titles that are offered to us,” per director Karen Cooper. But the new Film Forum looks … pretty much exactly like the old Film Forum. Explains Cooper, “We intended to keep the look, the color scheme (more or less), and the sensibility the same. We never considered radical changes—we leave the radical content to our documentaries.”

Project: Theater Renovation Architect: Stephen Tilly Location: Film Forum NYC. Image Credit: Peter Aaron / OTTO.

Radical or not, the renovations at all three theaters reflect an awareness that sitting back and cooling your heels won’t fly in a market with as much competition as New York City. 

Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema opened its second location last year, taking the 90-year-old Pavilion Theater and giving it new life with a full bar and dine-in service. The Lower East Side’s Metrograph opened in 2016, with emphasis on independent and foreign titles and a hip, highly Instagrammable interior space. The same year, Alamo Drafthouse opened its first New York City location in Brooklyn; the chain’s first Manhattan location is slated to open later this year and will boast 4K Barco projection, immersive sound, and luxury recliners. And, of course, premium food and beverage options—this is the Alamo, after all.

Speaking of premium food and beverage options, 2016 also saw the opening of New York City’s first iPic location, which features the luxury seating and dine-in service typical of the chain. And, in 2018, CMX Cinemas, Mexico’s second-largest movie chain, moved into New York City for the first time with their CMX CinéBistro, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “New Yorkers are a very demanding, cultured, and refined audience,” says CEO Jose Leonardo Martí, and “challenges us every single day to exceed our efforts and satisfy our guests’ needs. So far, we think we’ve done a great job.” A “modern and minimalist design,” says Martí, features “rich textiles and bold fixtures that embody the spirit and passion of New York.” The chain’s philosophy, says Vice President of Operations Fred Meyers, is “very food  and drink focused.” To that end, the CMX Cinebistro has a multiethnic food-and-beverage menu and two full-service bars.

And then there’s Regal’s upcoming multiplex in Tangram, a mixed-use development in Flushing, Queens. As the first New York City outpost of South Korea–based CJ CGV, the cinema was to feature ScreenX and 4DX screens and a slate of diverse programming to cater to one of New York City’s most diverse populations.  Earlier this year, CJ CGV was replaced by Regal, which (due to its partnership with CJ 4DPLEX) is still expected to bring 4DX and ScreenX to their to-be-opened Queens location. 

But wait! There’s still one more theater that’s opened in New York City over the last three years: The Roxy Cinema. The single-screen Roxy, previously a private screening space, is unusual in that it’s located on the cellar level of Tribeca’s Roxy Hotel. That, says curator Illyse Singer, has gone a long way toward ameliorating the real estate issues that other New York City cinemas have to deal with. 

But the real secret behind getting butts in seats, Singer explains, isn’t location or fancy amenities. (Though it should be noted that the Roxy did an overhaul before opening as a commercial cinema, adding 16-millimeter and Christie 4K projectors. As for luxury food and beverage options—well, you have the Roxy Bar and the Django jazz club right upstairs.) The key is, as always, movies. 

“I think it’s really important to play films that no one else is really taking on, and to play films that move and inspire people,” Singer argues. The theater’s intimate 118-seat space lends itself well to audience Q&As, which is another core component of the Roxy’s brand: “We really like the Roxy to be a place where guests can engage with talent and feel inspired and included.” It’s that combination of outside-the-box programming and guest appearances—plus the Roxy’s low-for-New York $12 ticket cost—that, Singer says, helps to pull audiences away from home entertainment options.

A smart approach to programming explains why the IFC Center had its biggest year ever in 2018, despite a lack of the amenities many other theaters have, or even the amenities the IFC Center itself will have after its renovations are complete at some to-be-announced date. “We’ve never really had the space to experiment with amenities or additional sales opportunities, like dine-in and so forth,” says Senior Vice President and General Manager John Vanco. “We’re so cramped as it is, we’ve not been able to dive into this brave new world of luxury loungers and so forth that a lot of other theaters have.”

What the IFC Center does have is a wide-ranging lineup, both in terms of its day-to-day screenings and special events like DOC NYC, the offbeat genre series What the Fest?!, and the recent Iranian Film Festival, just to name a few. People—not necessarily the same people—come to the IFC Center for documentaries and Oscar-nominated shorts (the cinema’s biggest program of the year) and its annual screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life. IFC will keep something like the Oscar-nominated foreign film Border for months—on one screen, maybe just for one show time a day, but still selling out as word-of-mouth expands.

A diversity of programming is reflected, by necessity, in many theaters across New York City. That’s true of the CMX Cinebistro, which, while it leans more mainstream than the IFC Center, still makes an effort to blend blockbusters with movies that will “satisfy more targeted audiences,” says Martí. “At CMX, we recognize the need for an elevated cinema experience, and we are in the process of understanding, in-depth, our guests’ interests and needs in order to offer a more diverse array of movie content, services, and amenities that appeal to New York City and Upper East Side audiences.”

It’s this “diverse array” of movies that makes the New York City theatrical space so vital, even if the old guard isn’t always able to keep up with the bigger chains in terms of the latest and greatest theatrical amenities. In terms of programming, studio releases, indies, foreign films, cult classics, and repertory screenings are represented, as well as any other sort of movie that New Yorkers may want to see. Which is all of them.

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