Sunshine Cinema, Lincoln Plaza closures highlight changing movie business

The Landmark Sunshine Cinema is closing on Sunday. It's been open since 2001.
The Landmark Sunshine Cinema is closing on Sunday. It’s been open since 2001. Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The pulse of New York’s independent movie scene grows fainter this month, with the closure of the Sunshine Cinema on Houston Street this Sunday followed by the end of the Lincoln Plaza on Jan. 31.

The theaters are closing because of redevelopment projects, while the combination of rising real estate prices and increased competition from streaming services has made the business of art house exhibition an increasingly challenging venture, according to experts.

The Sunshine, which opened in 2001, is closing to make way for a retail development, while the Lincoln Plaza run by film scene fixtures Toby Talbot and her husband Dan (who died in late December) since its opening in 1981, could not get a new lease with landlord Milstein Properties.

Rob King, an associate professor of film and media studies at Columbia University, said the loss of the Landmark Theaters-operated Sunshine will be acutely felt among audiences who appreciated its showcasing of Oscar-bait movies like “Darkest Hour” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” alongside cult fare such as “The Room” and “Super Fly.”

The latter two movies are the culmination of the theater’s midnight movie series this Saturday, alongside the classic “Dog Day Afternoon.”

“It represents a loss in the midrange spectrum in film-going in Manhattan,” King said.

Linda Levine, 67, of the Lower East Side, who went to a movie on a recent Friday, said the theater shouldn’t be shut down for retail development.

“While it’s not a landmark, [the building] has historic value,” Levine said, adding that the Sunshine, housed in a former Yiddish theater building construction in 1898, was “wonderful.”

“We are not people who are opposed to change, but some things should remain,” she said.

David Wain, a former city resident and the director of movies such as “Wet Hot American Summer” and the upcoming “A Futile and Stupid Gesture,” said its closing is a significant cultural loss.

“I remember when the Sunshine opened and that was after so many of the single screen independent theaters had closed. The Bleecker Street and on and on and on. I do think it’s super sad,” he said.

Lincoln Plaza fans lamented over the impending loss of an Upper West Side institution, the departure of which will leave only the Film Society of Lincoln Center as a home to independent and foreign movies in the neighborhood.

Ewnetu Admassu, the Lincoln Plaza general manager, said the Talbots were dedicated to meeting the demands of their discerning fans and programmed a slate of movies that reflected the tastes of the neighborhood.

“He (Daniel Talbot) would repeatedly tell me, ‘Your customers are your first priority and everything else comes second,’” Admassu said.

Admassu said the theater plans to hold a celebratory farewell on Jan. 28. The final movies it is showing include “The Insult” from Lebanon, the Italian coming-of-age drama “A Ciambra,” the Oscar-winning Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” and more from around the world.

Milstein Properties has indicated another cinema will open in the space after it refurbishes the building at 1886 Broadway, but film industry professionals say something special and irrevocable will have been lost.

Isil Bagdadi, co-founder and president of distribution at New York-based CAVU Pictures, said that the Lincoln Plaza staff’s expertise and curatorial prowess in foreign-language and art house cinema was unrivaled by its peers.

“It is truly devastating for us as a community, as an industry, that this theater is going to be shut down,” she said.

It’s a tough time in general for a theatrical industry under siege from Netflix and its ilk, as well as changing audience tastes in general.

Box office tickets sold hit a 22-year low in 2017, according to a report from the National Association of Theatre Owners, with 1.24 billion admissions. It’s a 6 percent decline from 2016.

Theaters are increasingly turning to the $9.99 subscription service MoviePass in a bid to reverse the decline. It topped one million subscribers last month.

Nonetheless, the independent film exhibition scene remains strong across the city.

The Quad Cinema has been reinvigorated since its 2017 reopening with a modern renovation, complete with a high-end bar and a new programming team.

The IFC Center is working on an expansion.

The Williamsburg-based Nitehawk Cinema, among the venues offering food service at your seat, will open its second location this year in the Park Slope space once occupied by the Pavilion.

Film Forum, the Metrograph, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Museum of the Moving Image and smaller venues such as the Syndicated in Bushwick offer regular robust programming of independent movies, foreign films and revivals, as well as retro Hollywood classics.

“There’s always going be a need for people to gather in person and do things,” Wain said. “People get a baby sitter and have a break from their house.”

Berman hopes that the dual closures will remind New Yorkers of the importance in patronizing local institutions in a city increasingly dominated by chains.

“I often find that people lament these places only when they are leaving,” he said. “The most important thing you can do in the interim is if there is a shop or theater that you love, keep patronizing it and tell your friends to do the same.”

With Meghan Giannotta, Scott. A Rosenberg, Rajvi Desai and wire reports