As the cinema industry emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, Boxoffice Pro and Spotlight Cinema Networks are partnering to profile movie theaters and influential industry figures from across the country and asking them to share their first-person accounts of bringing the movies back to the big screen.
The owner of three independent cinemas in New York City—including the oldest still-operating theater in the five boroughs—Nicolas Nicolaou came to New York City from his native Greece at the age of 15. A job at an RKO cinema led to a love of the industry that flourished over the next 50 years. Nicolaou’s passion for theaters, particularly neighborhood theaters, takes center stage in Abel Ferrara’s 2019 documentary The Projectionist; in September 2020, distributor Kino Lorber allowed theaters to screen the film and keep 100 percent of sales, as they reopened.
New York City has a rich cinematic history with such a diverse range of theaters, from multiplexes to movie palaces to more independent, community-oriented cinemas. How did you get involved in this scene?
I started when I was 15. We lived in Astoria. The first train stop to Manhattan was 59th Street. In the ’70s, that’s where all the main theaters were: The Baronet and Coronet [Theatre], Cinema I and II, all the art theaters, the 68th Street Playhouse, RKO 59th Street, the D.W. Griffith Theater, the Sutton Theater. I took the train one day, looking for a job. A friend of mine, we played a little game. He called up at the last minute: “I can’t come to work, but I can send my friend! He’s 16.” I wasn’t. They hired me. I worked for RKO, [and] I learned a lot of things there. And then I moved on, because across the street, there were other theaters. I was very quickly offered an assistant manager’s job at the [nearby] art theater. And then [I became the] manager. When you’re in a small chain—it was 10, 12 theaters they had—you get promoted if you’re willing to work hard. I was going to high school, still.
How old were you when you became the manager?
I was 17. And then when I was 19, the district manager for those theaters decided to take off with one of the female managers. So I covered for him. He didn’t come back for months! He must have been having a good time. So I kept doing it.
With all three of your theaters, you’re a steward of so much history. You obviously really care about these cinemas and what they mean to their communities.
We have people [here at the Alpine] that say, “Hey, my father used to bring me here when I was a little boy.” “Ah, the Alpine! I used to go there and hang out after school, and I can still go there and bring my kids.” These are memories that you cannot buy. Of course, I like the multiplexes the big chains have. There is room for everybody.
It’s an American tradition more than anything, the movies. It’s a social gathering. People come here and interact. In the morning, an eleven o’clock showing, senior citizens. You know what that means for a senior citizen? To get up and get out of the apartment. To put on lipstick. For seven dollars, to come and watch two hours of a movie. And she will see another 20 friends sitting around. Maybe she doesn’t know some of them, but she’s still socializing. That is creating a healthy community. The brain needs that. Unfortunately, in these past 50 years, I’ve seen neighborhood theater after neighborhood theater turn into a McDonald’s or a drugstore. That makes us a poorer, less healthy community.
[Neighborhood theaters] should mean something if you want a better community. If you want a better future. If you want healthier people. I’ve seen so many neighborhood theaters closed down and turned into other things. … Do the math, first of all. For each theater that is closed down, the business of the pizza guy across the street, the coffee shop, the guy next door that sells the comic cards, [they all suffer]. All these mom-and-pop stores that make up Main Street get destroyed. Mathematically, the economics are much better with a theater that brings in three, four hundred people. You know why? This is not a mall. The poor [customer] has to park two, three blocks away. And when he parks two, three blocks away: “Let’s get a nice, small dinner here. Let’s get a nice dessert here.”
My hair got white within a year with Covid, because I saw no light at the end of the tunnel, and the bills kept piling up. Our income stopped. Of course, we got a check from Spotlight [Cinema Networks]! “Let’s spend it to fix the theater!” we said. Because we wanted people to feel proud.
The Alpine Cinema looks absolutely beautiful. You’ve restored some of that old-school glamour that you’d expect from the oldest cinema in New York, while upgrading your technology in the auditoriums. Balancing the old and the new.
That’s what we did. At the time we were doing it, there was no help. We were getting some PPP money and things like that, but what do you pay when you don’t have a payroll? That’s why it was extremely beneficial what Senator Schumer did with championing a bipartisan bill, with fellow senators from both parties, that was signed into law, and there was relief money given to us.
I am more committed now. Because I feel that movie theaters are essential to our community. I’ve made the decision to keep these theaters going, regardless of what happens. Every week we get an increase in cost for the concessions. Every week! I haven’t increased [the price of] anything in this theater, because I am dealing with working-class people here. I don’t like to see a family come into the theater and shy away from concessions. That’s why I keep the lowest possible prices.
The world of cinema has changed a lot in 50 years. You saw the multiplexes come in, and then you saw the rise of streaming. What do you think of the cinema industry as it exists today?
All the chains, they have beautiful theaters. The theaters are much, much nicer today than they were then. What I feel bad about is that, for whatever reason, we lost a lot of neighborhood theaters. Neighborhood movie theaters are a magnet for the Main Street of an area. It serves as more than just an economic anchor. It serves as a social [anchor]. We’re all better off for them. But that obviously doesn’t [cut] it when it comes to people that may be only thinking temporarily: “We need this money, and that’s it.” You have to think long term.
This theater, when [it was up for sale], no one was willing to take it! No chain, not the millionaire independents. It was on the market for a year, and this right after three theaters closed around here. It was on the market for $10 million, and nobody would buy it. It would have become, by my understanding, a mosque. I said, “I don’t care if it’s a mosque or another church. We have enough of those. A movie theater is a church in my eyes.” People can pray at home. I pray at home! People still go to church. Yeah, you can watch a movie on your phone, your iPad, whatever. Even though that’s not the director’s intent—to me, you’re minimizing the value of what his work is. But at least you’re watching it, so that’s good. But don’t eliminate your option to watch streaming [services] and go to the movie theater.
I’m a businessman. But I love movies, and I love my community. Because I know what difference it makes. We saw it recently with Covid. People are isolated, they lose their mental health. You live in your own fantasy, not the real world. It is not healthy. Even if you shake hands with somebody, it makes you feel better. Or say hello. It makes a difference. We have to decide. These people that make the movies and the people in our business—I strongly believe that we have really decent people [in our industry] that care about humanity and care about the next generation. They will do the right thing. They’re not going to destroy theaters. They can coexist with streaming platforms. I believe people in our industry are not the type to say, “If we kill every other way you can watch a movie, then you have no choice but to subscribe [to our streaming platform].” In our industry, I’ve met a lot of people through over five decades, and they’re decent human beings. They’ll manage to make good profits for their companies and to include the movie theaters.
In mid-2020, Kino Lorber let cinemas screen The Projectionist and keep 100 percent of the profits. It was an early, and very powerful, example of the distribution side of the industry supporting exhibitors in a very tough time. Were you involved in that in any way?
Kino Lorber is a champion. I had nothing to do with it, believe me! Kino Lorber and their team—they get it. They don’t need to destroy theaters to be successful in selling the beautiful films they have. That’s who they are, Richard Lorber and the team there. When I learned they were giving [cinemas] The Projectionist for no admission, no film rental—I had never seen any film studio do that, ever, in my life. I was so happy that when I played the movie, I said, “No charge for my customers, either.” [Kino Lorber] wants to help theaters, which they do in so many different ways. They did it because this is who they are.
And you mentioned before that revenue from Spotlight Cinema Networks helped you keep your head above water during the shutdown?
Tremendously! That was the first check we got when we stopped having any money. We’ve been with Spotlight since the early days, with Cinema Village [in Manhattan], because it’s an artistic theater. It’s old school. We’ve played many important movies, in the old days especially. Spotlight, it’s good because their advertisements are just so classy. Our customers get it. They listen to them. It’s a nice touch our customers can enjoy. Spotlight is such smart advertising; they [approach programming] it in a very elegant way. And the income comes in very, very handy.