Can New York’s Last Great Movie Palace Be Saved?

Via CinemaTreasures.org

The guy at the ticket counter told me that he might not have anyone to answer my questions, because it was a busy night for them. This would not be an unusual response from a movie theater on a Friday in the middle of selling tons of tickets to the new James Bond movie. But it did feel a little unusual coming from an employee of the Ziegfeld. The best movie theater in Manhattan, essentially the only single-screen movie palace in the borough, isn’t often overwhelmed by the crowds.

But on November 6th, they were: people were out in force to see Spectre, easily the biggest crowd I’ve seen at the Ziegfeld since the last time I saw a Bond film, 2008’s Quantum of Solace, at this location. This is anecdotal evidence, of course, but, I have to say, pretty good as far as anecdotal evidence goes; I try to see anything I can at the Ziegfeld. This year that’s meant seeing Spectre, Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, and Fifty Shades of Grey (that last one was a screening, but I might have paid money just to see the big-screen S&M lameness in such posh environs). None of the crowds were huge, though only some were opening night. I skipped Terminator: Genisys because I wasn’t going to travel more than a mile to see that one. I skipped The Martian because I didn’t realize the Ziegfeld was showing it.

This lack of information can be a problem even for the Ziegfeld faithful, and probably moreso for the casual audiences this theater needs to attract if it stands a chance of staying in business.

Though it’s managed by Bow Tie, the company that took over the Clearview chain, it’s the only former Clearview location where Bow Tie hasn’t assumed the property lease. Cablevision, the company that unloaded Clearview in 2012, maintains the lease on the 54th Street property where the Ziegfeld sits; I don’t know the specifics of the deal, but it sounds like Bow Tie was perhaps unwilling to commit to the space.

But commitment to the space is exactly what this theater needs. During my early years in New York, the Ziegfeld routinely attracted big crowds: not just for the premieres and special events it’s still rented out for, but for exclusive early runs of Disney movies or lavish musicals, well-publicized revival series during off-seasons like January or September, and a great location for seeing blockbusters. All of the Star Wars prequels played there, and for a while so did most Pixars: Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3 all had runs there, usually to appreciative crowds.

But those crowds have diminished, especially since the transition to Bow Tie—a company that seems dedicated to the theatrical experience in many other respects, including a refurbishing of its Chelsea location. I wanted to talk to someone at the Ziegfeld last Friday to ask what their most successful runs this year had been, who is in charge of their bookings, and what they might be booking for the remainder of the year—the busy holiday season. The answer to the first question is almost certainly Spectre; the theater wasn’t sold out, as it was for Quantum back in ’08, but it was, to my eye, around three-quarters full, which is pretty huge for a theater with a capacity around 1,000 (a crowd of 700 should do fine for the concession counter where so many theaters make their dough). The answer to the bookings question has always been vague, and indeed, a friend of mine eager to see the new Hunger Games movie asked after it several times in the past week. First he was told that they would know more on the Monday after Spectre opened. That Monday, he was told to check back next week. But Mockingjay tickets have already been on sale for weeks at competing big-auditorium locations like the IMAX at 68th Street, or any of the fake IMAX locations in Times Square, or even non-IMAX but sizable auditoriums at multiplexes in Times Square, Kips Bay, and so on. The Ziegfeld used to be something of a buzzed-about destination; I saw the not especially high-grossing 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there in 2005 with a crowd about as big as any of the summer blockbusters I saw there this year. Some summers, the theater would even issue printed leaflets and website graphics advertising what movies they’d be showing from May through July, so fans of the venue (or the movies) would know that Thor, Transformers, and Harry Potter would all be coming soon.

Now, trying to figure out what the Ziegfeld will play has become a curdled game that lasts for far too long. In the past, it would have been a safe assumption that they would book Mockingjay for 11/20 (and if not, The Good Dinosaur the following weekend), and play it until either Star Wars returns on 12/18, or, preferably, Quentin Tarantino’s limited-released 70mm engagement of The Hateful Eight emerges on Christmas. The theater played 70mm versions of both Interstellar and The Master, and their capacity to do so on a large screen should make them a destination for special events like Tarantino’s longer “roadshow” version of his new film.

But while the theater finally did announce a round-the-clock Star Wars engagement this week, ask anyone at the Ziegfeld about Hunger Games (or, until this week, Star Wars), and all they can do is guess, and perhaps agree that they might/should/could get those movies. My friend heard one employee express doubt over Hunger Games, though, because they usually try to play big, successful movies like Spectre for a while (as of this writing, the Thursday night that Hunger Games opens still has Spectre showtimes scheduled all evening, though that could still change and nothing has yet been announced for the official 11/20 opening day).

Vague as they are, they’re not wrong; another Ziegfeld pitfall in recent years has been the tendency to hold over hit movies far longer than necessary. On a single-screen theater, there’s hardly anything, short of a city exclusive, that will be able to fill its 1,000-capacity auditorium for three or four weekends. Yet The Wolf of Wall Street played there for over a month from Christmas 2013, well into February, at which point they revived 12 Years a Slave for Oscar season. Not necessarily a bad move in the early months of the year, but ideally, this theater should be utilizing the standard initial two-week booking whenever possible (few movies are allowed to be booked for fewer than two weeks in their initial runs). Move ’em in, move ’em out; hold ’em over only if nothing remotely worthwhile is coming out. As big as The Martian was, it’s unlikely its fourth or fifth weekends at the Ziegfeld were insanely crowded, or even crowded at all. In the meantime, Bridge of Spies and Crimson Peak, both exactly the kind of adult-skewing movies that should be the theater’s stock in trade, came and went in other theaters.

Similarly, as big as Bond seems to be at the Ziegfeld, it would be foolish to assume that its third weekend would be a bigger draw than the first weekend of Mockingjay. And while the belated attention paid to Star Wars is heartening, it would be even better if anyone running the show there had the clout to request a special one-week engagement of the film that would allow a booking of the Taratino a week later, rather than six weeks of Force Awakens that leaves the theater adrift in The Finest Hours in late January. I do cherish that in the New York City bubble, it’s still possible for movies to run for literally months – that as of this writing, Mistress America is still playing theatrically almost three months after its initial release. But this should not be the Ziegfeld’s model; they should be playing as many different movies as contractually allowable, rather than scraping for the last handful of Fast & Furious fans who might wander into a Sunday afternoon screening three weeks into its run. The theatrical experience is more frontloaded now, and more focused on premiums and gimmicks to get people into the theater, rather than a rock-solid consistency.

Luckily, this theater is very much equipped to provide those gimmicks. Of course, this requires someone at Bow Tie or Cablevision to actually care about the Ziegfeld, rather than running out the clock on its lease so it can be turned into a Century 21 or some fucking thing. A single-screen movie palace is slightly and unfortunately out of place in midtown Manhattan, though it’s a short walk from Times Square, where such theaters were once commonplace. Maintaining it will require some degree of promotion: not just a box on a website no one visits advertising Star Wars tickets on sale several weeks after every hardcore fan in Manhattan has snapped up tickets to other opening-night showings. Make Star Wars at the Ziegfeld an experience and a destination, and make that clear months out. Fill in the less-busy days on the calendar with those revivals that play on much smaller screens at IFC Center, the Landmark Sunshine (itself apparently in danger), and all the museums. The Ziegfeld was reviving Back to the Future way before 10/21/15. And if they’ve got a 70mm projector, they should find every available 70mm movie to play during the January/April/September downtimes.

Maybe eventizing their every move seems like a tall order for a non-IMAX theater, but Ziegfeld also has a secret weapon: movies really are better there. Spectre is not a great movie; neither is Quantum of Solace. Hell, neither are most of the Harry Potter movies, really. But seeing those movies at the Ziegfeld did, swear to whoever, make them better. The tension sort of goes out of Spectre in its second half in a way that might be disappointing in a regular theater, but its richly shot and exciting first half, where the familiar James Bond gunshot logo was greeted with cheers, made for a swell moviegoing experience.

Press about the Ziegfeld usually says a few vague things: Cablevision controls it, it might close soon, and that would be a shame, sometimes with a bit of general advocacy about what’s playing there now. Here’s some other things, more specific: I could hear the audience in the vast auditorium sniffling after the opening sequence of Up, punctuated by a small child’s echo-y voice asking what happened (the accompanying laughter broke the tension/devastation). I saw the restored versions of the first two Godfather movies there, plus the rereleases of Raging Bull and Blade Runner, sitting way up close on the latter, coming closer than I ever have to enjoying the movie as much as its biggest fans. The lushness of The Village (a movie that crashes even harder than its back half than Spectre does) felt especially enveloping in the plush Ziegfeld auditorium. The audience for Iron Man 2 ate up its shaggy, goofy, attitude-comedy rhythms. For Toy Story 3, a Disney World-style Woody and Buzz cavorted in the aisles before the movie. These types of old-timey moviegoing experiences ought to be available for any film fan in New York to experience for years to come. So yes, go see The Force Awakens at the Ziegfeld this December. But Ziegfeld, maybe make it easier for people to find you, love you, and become fans of you. Don’t pretend we still live in an era where announcing your next big movie a few days ahead of time is more than enough. Those James Bond fans last week obviously knew something about the specialness of this theater. It should, by now, be common knowledge.

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