The Sorry State of Manhattan Movie Houses

Rob Wilson

Already blessed with the best weather in the world, Los Angeles moviegoers are also graced with the world’s best movie theaters, specifically a new generation of uberplexes that combine state-of-the-art projection and sound with unparalleled comfort and deluxe amenities, including reserved seating, expanded leg room, in-theater dining and service of alcoholic beverages. Along with the 2002 opening of Pacific Theaters’ the Grove and ArcLight Hollywood, the L.A. cinema roster has grown to include ArcLight venues in Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and the South Bay, Sundance Cinemas’ retrofit of the Sunset 5, and upstart iPic Theaters’ One Colorado in Pasadena.

By contrast, there has not been one multiplex built in Manhattan in more than a decade. The Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse chain dampened the spirits of many a moviegoer when it scrapped plans last fall to open a location in the long-shuttered Metro theater on the Upper West Side, with Drafthouse CEO Tim League blaming rising construction costs.

Ask around about the sorry state of the Big Apple’s exhibition scene, and the answer is, not surprisingly, almost always the same: money, money, money. “Most movie theaters operate on a very small profit margin,” says Landmark Theatres CEO Ted Mundorff. “In other words, your occupancy cost is everything, and in New York City, when you’re paying $500,000 in property tax and you’re paying some of the rental price per square foot that these sites require … well, that’s why you don’t get new theaters.”

Mundorff notes that when operator Clearview Cinemas pulled out of its six-screen 62nd Street theater on Manhattan’s chronically underscreened Upper East Side last June, virtually every exhibitor in the country, including Landmark, looked at the site for a possible retrofit. But, says Mundorff, “Forgetting what construction costs would be, forgetting what rent would be, the property taxes alone locked you out.”

Along with a paucity of new multiplexes, only a handful of theaters even offer the tiered stadium seating that has long been the industry norm. Just managing to snag an unobstructed view of the screen can qualify as a small triumph.

The news isn’t all bad. Despite the sometimes rowdy Times Square crowds they attract, the city’s two 42nd Street behemoths, the 25-screen AMC Empire and the 13-screen Regal E-Walk, offer comfortable stadium seating, large screens and first-rate projection. And recently, AMC’s downtrodden 84th Street location on the Upper West Side got a major facelift in the form of reclining armchairs that rival the business-class seating on most airlines, stadium seating and, more importantly, reserved ticketing — a Manhattan multiplex first.

Meanwhile, iPic has announced plans for an eight-screen luxury theater at Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport, while several other current construction projects, including the $15 billion Hudson Yards redevelopment and the massive Essex Crossing development on the Lower East Side, are hoping to attract movie-theater tenants. All of which could mean Manhattan’s first from-the-ground-up multiplex since 2001. Still, Mundorff cautions, “Theaters are always in discussion on any project, and then the developers see what kind of rents we want to pay and often change their mind.”

But with any luck, New Yorkers may start to see a flickering light at the end of the long, dark moviegoing tunnel.

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  1. kapostrano says:

    “Underscreened” Upper East Side? I thought they had the highest concentration of cinemas in the city up there. Anyway, didn’t the new Alamo go to Brooklyn, where they have a few places offering catered experiences already?

  2. kern says:

    Funny, in New Jersey, there are movie houses that serve food, and, to me and almost everyone I know, it is a sign of the classlessness of any New Jersey movie goer who would go to such a place.

    I would never go to a movie w/ waitresses who serve when I am watching a film.

    “Idiocracy” rules!!!!.

  3. Once upon a time, there were movie theaters within walking distance of pretty much anywhere you lived in Manhattan or the Bronx (I’m not sure about Brooklyn or Queens since I never lived in either borough). Or anywhere you worked in Manhattan. And you didn’t need to take an escalator or elevator to your theater. You stepped through the door off the street and you were practically in your seat. Now, theaters are farther east and west and few are located centrally anymore. New theaters on a pier or in the South Street Seaport don’t appeal to me because they’re a hassle to get to. And the few theaters that still show repertory programming, the ones I most wish to go to, are among the most uncomfortable in the city, as well as being out of the way. And the prices! I tallied up the ticket prices I paid in 2013 and all were in the two digit range. And if the showtimes are inconvenient and require me to be in Manhattan later than I want, I don’t go. I remember when I could leave my office at 5:30 PM, pick up a snack and drop into a theater in Times Square to catch a 6PM show two blocks from my office and get home to the Bronx by 9PM on a weeknight. No more. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it harder and harder to motivate myself to go to theaters.

  4. Regarding the “world’s best movie theaters” in LA serving alcoholic beverages, I hope our local theaters here settle for second best and nix the alcohol. With discourteous behavior running rampant among audiences that bring their TV-in-the-den mentality to the theater, the final straw that puts us all in DVD mode will be to embolden rude and ill-mannered moviegoers even further by serving them alcohol.

  5. Alan Rosenfeld says:

    Love the W84th Street AMC. Huge powered recliners with cupholders, I started dozing during American Hustle….

  6. johntshea says:

    So New York subsidizes movie production and taxes the hell out of their exhibition!

  7. johntshea says:

    In-theater dining? That’s all we need! Smell-o-vision! Popcorn excluded, of course.

    • In México we have had that luxury concept for decades now… you have waiters and there are some dining options… they serve alcoholic drinks, reclinable leather seats… you can almost be laying down… they are separated in pairs and you have little movable trays for you to put whatever you are eating… they are pretty good

  8. Darling Me says:

    Those cushy Loew’s 84th Street seats beat anything at the Grove, ArcLight, Sunset 5, or Austin Drafthouse! If only they’d start serving food to us the way they do in Austin, we Upper West Siders would have it all!

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