The Upper West Side Needs More Art Film Screens

When the Lincoln Plaza Theater closed in January of 2018, it was like a body blow to the Upper West Side, an area that historically housed a huge community of arts lovers who were educated, sophisticated and open to a wide variety of cinema experiences.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t alternatives. Film at Lincoln Center is one of the best curated art houses in the country. AMC has two large multiplexes that, in addition to playing the latest Hollywood movies, also squeeze in the occasional Focus, Searchlight, A24 or Neon film. But, with the passing of the Lincoln Plaza Theater, a stalwart community institution was gone.

In the time since that closure, there have been some good and some bad developments. On the bad side, The Landmark on 57th Street also closed. While it was never going to fulfill the UWS neighborhood’s needs due to its incredibly inconvenient location, Landmark did attempt to play some of the smaller art films that couldn’t find a home elsewhere. I’ve heard that someone is taking over that theater, but I’m guessing it will end up mainly playing commercial Hollywood films.

On the positive side, New Plaza Cinema–a cinema group that grew out of the Lincoln Plaza audience–has found a home in an auditorium at Macaulay Honors College on West 67th Street. They have been successful in playing some of the international and arthouse films that play elsewhere in the city but have no place to play on the Upper West Side. Bookings are limited by the fact that it is a part-time venue with only one small screen, so films play for a single show, or a few shows over a weekend, and not for the extended runs that would allow more audiences to catch up with them.

Another positive development is that the Metro on 100th Street is apparently being brought back to life by Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse fame. Reportedly, the theater will be a dine-in experience but won’t be a Drafthouse-branded venue. In an announcement by a local news outlet, it was referred to as a “new concept” in movie exhibition. We’ll have to wait and see exactly what that means, but it’s good news whatever it turns out to be.

Still, the problem remains that all of these theaters combined do not have enough shelf space to meet the demand in a neighborhood that has around 200,000 residents, not to mention the large, underserved audiences both north and east of the area.

Which brings me to this.  Around a year ago, while walking down Broadway and eyeing the various vacant storefronts, it occurred to me that perhaps I could do something about it. I took down the names of the real estate agents and began investigating what might be possible. After a good deal of research, one property seemed like the perfect solution. It was in the ideal location, which I would define as being close to a subway station, close to a crosstown bus and between 72nd Street and 86th Street. I toured the vacant property along with my friend Chapin Cutler from Boston Light & Sound and determined that the space seemed like it could work. I brought in an architect and drew up conceptual plans for a five-screen cinema with a ground floor lounge/café that would be open to the public. The configuration would be:

  • Screen 1: 220 seats
  • Screen 2: 75 seats
  • Screen 3: 85 seats
  • Screen 4: 55 seats
  • Screen 5: 45 seats

From my perspective, it was potentially an ideal facility to revive the Upper West Side as a flagship location for the art film world. But it also represented an enormous lift in terms of cost and logistics. After consultation with some of the most successful art houses in the country, I decided that the only route that made sense was to do it as a not-for-profit. I started creating the plan, and tried to work with the landlord of the property to see how we could make it work.

I reached out to others in the New York art film community and the support I received, even from institutions that might have seen the plan as competition, was hugely encouraging. Many of those folks agreed to serve on an advisory board. I was particularly impressed by the energy and passion of Adeline Monzier, who represents Unifrance in the United States and programs a film series in Harlem, and eventually asked her to come aboard as co-founder.

The two of us developed the business concept and fleshed out a lot of the details. Screen 1 would be for first-run art films, many of which would be playing simultaneously downtown or in Brooklyn. There would be a new film every two weeks (Film Forum style.) Screens 2 & 3 would be for move-overs of successful films from Screen 1 as well as from other Manhattan venues. Screen 4 would be dedicated to festivals and repertory series. Screen 5 would be for private screenings and educational use. We would approach institutions across the city about partnerships that would make us an additional venue for existing festival programming, including Film at Lincoln Center, BAM, the JCC, Tribeca, and others. We would reach out to educational institutions across the city to develop series that would feed various curricula. We could also tap into the need for more private screening space by renting out for trade events such as FYC Oscar screenings. Having a café/event space would only enhance all of these opportunities.

The fundraising part would be daunting but seemed achievable. We were offered New York State financing that could be used as a bridge to get things started. We researched and determined that our 501c3 status could save us millions in real estate taxes. We were encouraged enough that we finally made an offer for the property, only to find out that they were in negotiations with other parties. My understanding is that they are having trouble closing that deal, so I’m holding out hope that we can get their attention again. I’m purposely not revealing the location because I don’t want to alienate them. In the meantime, we’re exploring other locations.

You may ask why, after working on this for more than a year in stealth mode, I am going public with this? I’m hoping that the need for an art film venue like the one I am proposing is so great, that floating it publicly will gather the kind of support (financially and otherwise) to make it happen. Fingers crossed.

18 thoughts on “The Upper West Side Needs More Art Film Screens”

  1. A couple of things that have been brought to my attention that I would like to add to the above.
    First, New Plaza Cinema is having its first open-ended run as we speak. The film is the Oscar-nominated film “Living” and is exactly the sort of film that Upper West Side audiences crave. Open-ended means that it’ll play as long as it is doing business, which it is indeed doing. This is an example that proves how much demand there is in the neighborhood, but since showings are still limited, and there is only the one part-time screen, it doesn’t solve the larger issue.

    I also want to give a shout out to the Maysles Film Center up in Harlem. While they are not technically on the Upper West Side, they do great work and deserve your support.

  2. Hi Ira,
    This sounds like a very good initiative. I really hope it works out. Especially, the screen set up suggests there will be room for a wider range of diverse cinema to be featured in the line-up, including films represented by smaller distributors like ArtMattan Films!

  3. Hey Ira and Adeline,

    Hope you keep us at MoMA in mind for collaborations as well, particularly since I cut my teeth on double bills at the Thalia, Regency, Metro, New Yorker, Theater 80, etc.


  4. This sounds great Ira! I’ll be there all the time!

    I bet it could be a popular space for Q&As from visiting filmmakers, film scholars and all the different folks who help make movies.

    I’m a member of American Cinema Editors and for the last few months we’ve been collaborating with Metrograph on a series of films paired with Q&A’s with their editors – so far we’ve sold out each night!

  5. YES. Do this. There are so many empty spaces along Broadway — like on the NW corner of 86th where there was a Gristedes downstairs (basement) and a large Banana Republic upstairs (street level). Also the 2-story Face Values store at 90th, 3-story DSW at 79th, etc., etc. More effort to spark life and retail needs to happen more intentionally. There are some very solid restaurants already in that area as well as new buildings adding thousands of units between 84th and 96th St.

  6. There’s also a lack of local space for corporate and other events and presentations so I would add to your list that there would be decent rental opportunities on off hours. Good luck!!!

  7. Hi Ira —
    What a great addition to the neighborhood it will be!!! I remember how excited we were in 1980 when we came to NYC and moved to a place around the corner and down 88th St. from The New Yorker Theater. My husband and I are typical of many of the UWS COVID conservative grey-hairs who are still AVID film fans and have been resigned so far to streaming. Please keep public safety (and all of us) in mind in designing your space and programming policies (including top-end recommended HVAC technology for your facility), and we’ll be standing in line for your programs! Good luck, the UWS needs you!!!

  8. Ira,
    What about a brief trial run at the Thalia, the tragic remains of my brother’s once-monumental double-feature neighborhood wonderland?
    Just a thought… Wishing you luck!

  9. Ira,
    Who knew that all those times you and Beth were carrying over boxes of bulbs and other supplies, you were also carrying a big secret! And a darn good one at that.
    Your well researched plan for an art film venue is just what the doctor ordered for the Upper West Side. Just as Zabar’s makes this a destination neighborhood for pickled herring lovers, so too would it be one for those yearning for the days of
    “Swept Away.”
    Looking forward to hearing updates
    on your exciting proposal!

  10. We would echo Susan’s question about the Lincoln Square theater complex , now vacant for > 4 years. Admittedly, it is below 72nd street, but certainly would qualify as UWS. It would seem like an ideal opportunity. Is there some (unknown) roadblock to taking advantage of this space?

  11. Regarding the Lincoln Plaza space, I tried to talk to them a while ago and they were not interested in having a serious talk. Frankly, I would rather be further uptown.

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