The Sorry State of Manhattan Movie Houses

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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