“I would not call it a lucrative business,” he says of his 632-seat, four-theater venue — now called the Greenport Theater — which offers movies all week long during the summer tourist season in the former whaling village on Long Island’s North Fork.
But Sapan knew what he was doing. He wasn’t in it to make money. The theater is his passion project, embracing his love of cinema and desire to support the town of about 2,200 near his weekend home on Shelter Island.
With so many people transfixed by TVs or mobile devices, “we’re in a world that’s increasingly remote and sometimes isolated,” he says. Greenport Theater “gives some heart to the town. Someplace for kids to go when it rains, and a place for people to go when they want to be physically present together.”
The closest competitor is a small multiplex about 13 miles away in Mattituck.
Sapan is playing with his own money, not AMC shareholders’. Greenport Theater has no corporate ties to AMC’s IFC Films, which operates New York City’s IFC Center.
Still, the Greenwich Village and Greenport theaters share a scrappy vibe. The Greenport Theater reserves one screen for independent and art films. The others show Hollywood releases without 3D, supersize screens, recliner seats — or ads.
The concession stand sells popcorn and soda. Sapan leases an adjoining café to a Greenport resident.
The theater also has a photo gallery run by the community’s East End Arts. When summer ends, partners use the venue for cultural events including the Manhattan Film Institute’s North Fork Summer Workshop series and the North Fork TV Festival.
Sapan offered to lease the theater to the town rent-free to keep it open over the winter. It recently began showing non-current movies on weekends.
The AMC Networks chief’s infatuation with movies began early. During his childhood in New York, “I fell in love with the sound of the movie projector,” he says. “It really was like ‘Cinema Paradiso.’”
The allure continued after he graduated from college in 1975. Sapan and a partner rented films including “The Bicycle Thief,” “Last Year in Marienbad,” and “Reefer Madness,”and for a few months drove through Ohio selling tickets to showings on makeshift screens.
The Greenport Theater’s art deco design rekindled Sapan’s movie-showing flame — although he “thought the real estate was a good price too.” Legendary movie palace architect John Eberson revived the venue in 1939 after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 destroyed the original 1915 structure.
Before television, “when a film would open, the streets were clogged with people,” Sapan says. Old-timers tell him stories, for example, about the plates and dinnerware the theater gave frequent ticket buyers. “One told me that he was an usher there and wore a uniform with a cap,” says Sapan. “Other people told me that’s the first place they made out.”
Sapan had the original touches restored. A few years ago he installed digital projectors as studios phased out celluloid prints.
He made the technological change “reluctantly,” he says. In his young film-screening days, Sapan remembers, “I always had great affection for flipping the industrial switch to ‘Forward.’ It connoted people coming together to watch movies.”
People do so in Greenport because a businessman ignored the bottom line. At a time when many theater owners are abandoning Main Streets to show movies in extravagant, restaurant-driven entertainment centers, Sapan has flipped the switch to “Pause.”