Lincoln Plaza Cinemas’ Closing Sends Filmmakers Scrambling for New Venues

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, located at 1886 Broadway, screened offbeat indie-films for 36 years until it shut its doors in January. (Photo Credit: Google Streetview)

Countless independent films by otherwise unknown directors have gotten their claims to fame by running their movies at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Uptown Manhattan.

Manhattan-based indie-film distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories has picked up films like “Embrace of the Serpent,” to run in Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Film Forum, which are the only two theaters in New York willing to screen many of these offbeat movies.

Oscilloscope’s president Daniel Berger spoke to Crain’s about the theater that closed in January, he said, “Lincoln Plaza Cinemas was a venue that could boost a film to great success. It was dedicated to challenging films in an already challenging landscape.”

A film that was barely-known could have a great opening weekend at Lincoln Plaza and gain a big enough profile to snag a review in The New York Times. The box-office grosses and reviews would be examined by bookers of art-house films across the nation.

During its opening weekend in February 2016, “Embrace of the Serpent” pulled in $17,000 just at Lincoln Plaza and was celebrated at the top-grossing specialty film in the country. After The Times gave it a great review, the film, which was set in the Colombian Amazon, went on to run on over 250 screens throughout the United States. Its ticket sales brought in $1.3 million, making it one of the top subtitled films of the year.

According to Crain’s, “That the complex at Broadway and West 62nd Street could be so influential was thanks to the many sophisticated Upper West Side film lovers who put up with Lincoln Plaza’s no-frills lobby, basic concessions and six belowground screens. Last year the complex sold $4.3 million in tickets, according to ComScore. Lincoln Plaza was still boosting challenging films to success when it closed its doors at the end of January. That was one month after the death of its founder, Dan Talbot, at 91 and several months after landlord Milstein Properties—which had partnered with Talbot on the theater’s 1981 opening—had informed him its lease would not be renewed. That has left distributors, already pressured by streaming-at-home competition from Netflix and Amazon, scrambling to fill a void.”

Film professor at Columbia University and former specialty-film distributor turned industry consultant, Ira Deutchman, told Crain’s, “The Upper West Side has become a black hole. Lincoln Plaza was the nation’s de facto art-house flagship.”

Even longer wait times for getting independent films into theaters are predicted by the veteran distributor Richard Lorber with Lincoln Plaza’s shutter. Lorber told the news outlet, “It changes the art-cinema ecosystem. It means all the distributors are facing longer waits on the tarmac for their films to take off.”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center on West 65th Street is the closest alternative, since it runs similar films. Unfortunately, it only has three screens, and festival programming or repertory often takes up one of them. Some art-house films can snatch a screening in the smaller auditoriums at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square multiplex on Broadway and West 68th Street. However, foreign-language titles and documentaries are unlikely to get a booking at the AMC, which prefers the more popular indie fare. If you are willing to hike to 12th Avenue and West 57th Street, Landmark opened there in September with eight-screens. When it comes to city art theaters though, it is the lowest grossing, being fairly new and four blocks from any subway, so many distributors fear that a showing there could actually harm rather than help a film’s national prospects.

By Rachel Shapiro

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