Last Sunday afternoon outside of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas had the air of a slightly festive funeral—one where the decedent’s passing wasn’t much of a surprise, and where the mourners were glad to have an excuse to get together one last time. “What movie are you seeing?” the woman in front of me in the long line asked. “Happy End,” I said. “Oh, it’s not that good,” she said, not as a warning or a lamentation but as a factual analysis, revealing herself to be another person who duly sees all of the independent theater’s quirky offerings—good, bad, and ugly. But there wouldn’t be any more: the six-screen basement movie theater at 62nd Street and Broadway closed later that evening after nearly 37 years, leaving another vacant space in Manhattan’s streetscape.
Lincoln Plaza announced its closing in December, just two weeks before its co-owner, Dan Talbot, died at 91. Talbot and his wife, Toby, were film buffs who became indie-film distributors and theater operators. In 1960, they launched the New Yorker theater on Broadway and 89th, presenting The Red Balloon and Henry V as a double-feature, according to Talbot’s New York Times obituary. In 1981, they opened Lincoln Plaza, in the basement of a three-year-old apartment building. The theater would be the couple’s fourth and last; the New Yorker had closed in 1973. In December, the Talbots’ landlord, Milstein Properties, said that it wouldn’t renew the lease because of needed structural renovations. Suspicious filmgoers whispered the news among themselves, questioning the official explanation, and noted the dwindling number of trailers for upcoming features. “Coming soon?” another woman patron said loudly during the trailers a couple of weeks ago. “Nothing’s coming soon! They’re closing.”
I didn’t know anything about the Talbots until recently. I only knew Lincoln Plaza as a low-key place to see films that don’t make it to the multiplex. It screened films with subtitles, shunned by chains on the reasonable commercial grounds that people don’t like to read their movies. The theater also showed films ignored for other reasons: a few years ago, it ran Blue is the Warmest Color, whose teen-girl lust-and-love plot was so steamy that it garnered an NC-17 rating, another barrier to a wide release. With a clientele of older Upper West Side liberals, Lincoln Plaza also showed more than its share of films about the Palestinians. I’ve seen good movies there, and bad movies, and three-hours-long movies about the French Foreign Legion that I didn’t understand. But the theater’s most reliable revenue-generator, judging from audience size, was the annual Woody Allen release, including the current Wonder Wheel, which was playing on the theater’s final day. Neither the Talbots nor the patrons ever got the memo that we’re all now boycotting Allen.
It’s easy to make fun of Lincoln Plaza’s elderly and largely female audience— pushy, talkative, and frugal. (I had looked forward, distantly, to getting the senior discount—$11, instead of $15.) And it’s easy, as some Yelp reviewers would do, to criticize the three-star-rated theater for its lack of assigned stadium seats and fancy concessions. Milstein has said that it wants to reopen the space as a theater after extensive renovations.
But the economics of investing tens of millions of dollars in an indie-film Manhattan multiplex are choppy. Just a week before Lincoln Plaza closed, the 16-year-old Sunshine Cinema on the Lower East Side shuttered as well. The theater was profitable, its co-owner said, but it couldn’t pay market rent in Manhattan. The single-screen Ziegfeld in West Midtown closed two years ago, getting refashioned into a corporate-event space.
Exactly what the market rent for Manhattan space is right now is open to question. A few blocks up Broadway from Lincoln Plaza, a huge three-story space, including two basements, sits empty, vacated by the Gracious Home retailers more than a year ago. With newer real estate along this stretch of the Upper West Side already saturated with supermarkets and big-box stores such Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy, it’s hard to see what else Milstein might do with a fully underground space. A new theater, though, would have to charge higher prices to make up for its investment—prices that may be out of reach for much of the fixed-income audience.
New York is still New York, though—and the Upper West Side still has options. Film buffs can go to Lincoln Center, which runs a newish, modern theater space with some first-run indie selections, across the street from Lincoln Plaza. Or they can walk up a few blocks to the AMC Loews multiplex, owned for the past half-decade by Dalian Wanda, itself owned by China’s richest man. Patrons can be grateful to Wanda for making some modest upgrades, including assigned seats. Plus, the company seems to have vacuumed the carpet recently, a big improvement. Of course, don’t expect to see any movies critical of the Chinese government at AMC.
So, true free marketers on the Upper West Side, not a big group to begin with, now have a choice between being dependent on a nonprofit or on global Communists for their film fare. After Sunday’s screening—which, in keeping with my fellow moviegoer’s verdict, was just okay—the viewer directly in front of me stood up. “Is that it?” she asked no one. “Crazy,” she concluded, shaking her head and shuffling out. Indeed.