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Lincoln Plaza Cinemas: Theater Chains Vie to Take Over Landmark

Dan Talbot, an exhibitor who brought arthouse films to the residents of New York’s Upper West Side, died last December at the age of 91, leaving a void in the cultural life of the neighborhood and depriving studios of one of the staunchest champions of independent fare.

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the dog-eared but much-loved basement theater he owned and operated since 1981, has been closed and left vacant since January while Milstein Properties weighs what to do with the space. In an unfortunate twist, Talbot’s death coincided with the end of the theater’s lease.

“For many of us, it was like we had lost our best friend,” said Norma Levy, an attorney and Upper West Side resident. “Lincoln Plaza played films you couldn’t see anywhere else.”

The closure has also been a blow to distributors, because Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was such a reliable source of box office for more off-beat films. Foreign films made as much as a third of their U.S. theatrical revenues from the theater chain, studio executives say.

“It’s been a huge hit,” said Tom Bernard, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics. “One of the beauties of Lincoln Plaza Cinema was that they kept foreign language films and esoteric films on the screen for so long. They’d be there for four, five, six months, and that sustained the box office for these movies.”

Even as top theater chains pitch the Milstein family on their plans to offer high-end cinemas, a group of local movie lovers is taking action. At a memorial in January for Talbot and for the theater, Levy begin enlisting volunteers to try to find a way to keep Lincoln Plaza Cinema alive, at least in spirit.

Their solution is to create a non-profit film society dubbed New Plaza Cinema. Through the summer the society will be showing films at the Marlene Meyerson JCC, which is located just a few blocks from the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. The group has enlisted former staffers, such as previous manager Frank Rowley, as well as Talbot’s widow, Toby, to help select films to screen. In June, they began showing new indie features such as “The Catcher Was a Spy” and cinema classics like “Goodbye Columbus,” and plan to continue to offer a combination of current releases, old favorites, and discussions with tastemakers and directors. Demand has been high with the 250-seat theater selling out regularly, and the group’s mailing list swelling from 500 people to more than 5,500 in a matter of weeks.

“It’s the sort of thing that’s captured the imagination,” said Jack Willis, a filmmaker and board member. “We’re just hustling to stay on top of it all.”

In the meantime, the likes of AMC, Alamo Drafthouse, iPic, Angelika, and Landmark have met with the property owners about filling the space. There are rumblings that a decision won’t be made until after Labor Day, and some bidders came away convinced that the Milstein family was more interested in tapping a chain that offered a luxury or more unorthodox experience, such as dine-in screenings, than going with a more mainstream brand like AMC.

“We’ve been working it even before everyone else was,” said Hamid Hashemi, CEO of iPic, in an interview last spring. “We’ve known the Milsteins and we’ve been in negotiations with them…They’ve been very tight-lipped, but if they go for quality, we’re going to be it.”

Hashemi isn’t the only one who thinks Lincoln Plaza, with its prime Manhattan location and community of high net worth individuals, would be an ideal location for a new theater.

Landmark Theatres CEO Ted Mundorff would neither confirm nor deny that his company was interested in making a run at the space, but he did indicate that it could be a good fit for his chain, which caters to an audience of well-heeled film lovers.

“We’ve always thought Landmark would be the natural company to inherit Dan Talbot’s vision and to do what’s right for the neighborhood and for the people who loved to go to that theater,” said Mundorff.

Levy, Willis, and other volunteers don’t seem enamored by the thought of another chain taking the place of Lincoln Plaza Cinema. They note that Talbot kept prices low, not just on tickets, but also concessions, because he recognized that many of his customers were senior citizens on fixed incomes. They are also concerned that the new occupant won’t have the same commitment to showing the off-beat or the avant-garde.

When the summer is over, the New Plaza Cinema will have to vacate the JCC. However, the group has been meeting with other venues to try to secure a more permanent location. Ultimately, they hope to raise enough money to build a new multi-screen arthouse cinema on the Upper West Side, one that offers the latest indies, as well as special events. It’s something they feel will be a civic good.

“We plan to make it an educational and community space,” said Levy. “That’s important. My world is a small one and films open up my mind to a new way of looking at things and of understanding the universe. That’s what we hope to do with New Plaza Cinema.”

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