By Eric Kohn
When Harvey Elgart first started looking around the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area for places to open a movie theater, he saw a wide open opportunity in a neighborhood devoid of commercial movie options. “It was under-screened,” recalls Elgart, who at the time already operated the Cobble Hill and Kew Gardens Cinemas. “Few theaters could have found the proper zoning rights and price.”
That was five years ago. By the time Elgart managed to open the Williamsburg Cinema on Grand Street and Driggs Avenue in early January, the neighborhood had extended its repertoire to include a wide variety of theaters. In June 2011, the Nitehawk Cinema brought a three-screen arthouse experience to the area, with the added bonus of food and drink services during screenings (the theater also overturned a long-problematic law outlawing alcohol in screening rooms).
Over the following two years, a series of microcinemas set up shop in the vicinity: IndieScreen, a smaller but fashionable bar-movie experience, mainly programs sleeper hits from the film festival circuit; The Spectacle shows rare cinephile-friendly gems; and Videology, once merely a video store, now screens a combination of first-run features and wackier one-off selections.
But none of these theaters harbor the financial aspirations or mainstream slant of Elgart’s Williamsburg Cinema, a 1,000-seat, seven-screen, stadium-style venue exclusively focused on showing new releases to the broadest possible audience.
While the other theaters appear to reflect the artsier sensibilities of many people living in the area, Elgart views his endeavor on a much larger scale. “We are a true movie theater,” he says. “Those other venues have become restaurants that show movies. That’s not what we aim to do.”
But even if several of the theaters in the vicinity rely on food and drink perks to lure people through the door, the recent history of movie theaters in Williamsburg-Greenpoint has much to do with local demand for a product previously unavailable in North Brooklyn.
For Nitehawk, the venue’s commercial appeal first solidified not when it managed to start serving booze during movies, but rather when it booked one movie that fit the interests of the local clientele.
That would be “Drive,” Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s bloody, expressionistic Ryan Gosling vehicle, which appealed to fans of both the star and the genre. But it almost didn’t happen.
For theaters to book new movies, they first must appeal to distributors hoping to place their titles where audiences will turn up. Nitehawk, which had no track record, proved something of a gamble. But the theater lucked out: Bob and Jeanne Berney, who at the time ran the operations of “Drive” distributor FilmDistrict, visited the area frequently, since their son Sean lives here. “Just looking at the streets of Williamsburg, it seemed like there was a younger audience that was going to respond to this arty exploitation film,” recalls Bob Berney, who now runs the newly relaunched Picturehouse.
The gamble paid off: “Drive” played for 10 weeks at Nitehawk, filling each of its screening rooms and frequently selling out, firmly putting the theater on the map. “The grosses at the Nitehawk were comparable to these huge multiplex shows,” Berney says. “I think it really established the theater.”
Still, Berney admitted he was hesitant about booking first-run features at an unconventional theater, echoing Elgart’s characterization of such venues. “This was the attitude of distributors at first as well,” he says. “But it gives you a real community to hang out and talk about the films—unlike some other theaters, where you just leave.”
Nitehawk founder Matthew Viragh acknowledges that the bar is an intrinsic part of his business model. “I joke a lot about opening a laundromat with a bar,” he says, but adds that the central demand behind his operation was the movies themselves. “There are a lot of artists in the neighborhood,” he explains. “The music scene exploded first. Now the film scene has exploded. It’s been a long time coming.”
Viragh says he first started spending time in the neighborhood around 2000, when the only real theater available was The Commodore, on Broadway. “It wasn’t a very nice theater,” he says. “It was run down. For a long while, I knew Northern Brooklyn was hurting for screens.” He attributes the delay in the marketplace to other forces that took priority as the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhood developed. “People wanted a grocery store above all else,” he says. “But now it’s just such a heavily populated area.”
Elgart also sees the influx of residents as part of its market potential, but not because of Williamsburg’s reputation for being dominated by hip adults. “You wouldn’t think people in their thirties and forties would be part of the demographic, but there are older adults and families here now,” he says. “There are enough people in the immediate area.”
In his first month with the theater open, Elgart says he has noticed that more people attend late screenings, so shows at the Williamsburg Cinema can run as late as 11 p.m.— a stark contrast to Elgart’s Cobble Hill Cinema, where the last screening usually starts no later than 9 p.m. That may point to the nightlife sensibilities of the neighborhood, but Elgart still hopes to draw more families. He recently booked the theater’s first animated feature, “Escape
From Planet Earth,” set to open February 14. He has also added the incentive of special pricing by knocking down ticket prices to $8 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Our expectation is to run the theater to the maximum,” he explains.
However, while the Williamsburg Cinema may draw commercially-oriented viewers less inclined to check out the more outr. options nearby, as a traditional multiplex Elgart’s theater faces a typical modern-day challenge: How do you lure people to see a movie when they can save money and time by watching stuff at home?
Elgart is unfazed. “Those are people who really don’t go to the movies,” he says. “But the moviegoing experience is special. It will never change.”