Why the Old-School Movie House Is Worth Fighting For

In what has become almost an annual ritual for New York City movie lovers — something like our Groundhog Day, but more depressing — rumors are circulating about the possible closure of the Ziegfeld Theatre, one of the last remaining single-screen movie theaters in the city, and certainly the largest and most opulent. A gorgeous old-school movie palace that seats about 1200 moviegoers, the Ziegfeld has long been a favorite destination for premieres and special events. But that revenue only goes so far, and anyone who’s gone to see a regular ol’ first-run movie showing there will tell you that it’s depressingly under-attended, even during primetime and on weekends. So how do increasingly anachronistic single screens like the Ziegfeld stay in business? And, what’s more, should they?

I’d argue they should, though that’s obviously easier said than done. Over at the New York Post, Lou Lumenick (a frequent chronicler of the Ziegfeld’s troubles) has a very good — and believe you me, if I’m sending you to read the Post, it’s very good — rundown of the venue’s current troubles and most oft-proposed solutions, all of which are a good deal more complicated in execution than in conception. And they’re the kind of ideas you’ll hear and see in leftover movie palaces around the country: full-time revival house, special events, festival venues, etc. Specific logistical elements make them harder to execute in mid-town New York; the Ziegfeld is considered a Broadway house, so the operating costs are astronomical, which is part of why it’s losing so much money.

But this should be an all-hands-on-deck situation, because these old movie houses are important — part of our cultural history, and too often missing from our cultural present. In cities major and minor across the country, the stories are all too familiar: gorgeous Art Deco movie palaces, community centers throughout the war years and the mid-20th century, razed left and right for parking garages and retail centers. (New York City’s movie-house history has been particularly decimated, thanks to the high value of prime Manhattan real estate; the wonderful Cinema Treasures site is a guide to what we’ve lost, and what little remains.) The trend started in the 1970s with the rise of the multiplex, and no wonder: why go to a giant building to see one movie when you can go to the mall and have your choice of five shoeboxes showing five different movies?

Mia Farrow in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"

These days, as Lumenick notes, the greater danger to the few singe-screens that remain are the amenities those multiplexes have added: stadium seating, IMAX auditoriums, whatever tilting-seats-and-wind bullshit they’ll throw in next. Yet as the technological experience of movie-going has improved, the social experience of it has grown increasingly more odious, with blinding smartphones and chatty patrons so omnipresent that the notion of a $40K home system for first-run movie viewing seems less like an obnoxious rich-people toy than something that we sure do wish we could swing too.

On a philosophical level, it seems like the Ziegfeld and theaters like it have the right idea about how to combat those foes: by separation, not imitation. Appeal to the moviegoers who don’t like that experience anymore — older audiences and movie buffs who actually go to the movies to watch a movie, rather than to live-Tweet and treat the film like living room background noise. When you go to the Ziegfeld, they’ve still got nattily dressed ticket takers and ushers, and they treat it like going to the movies is a big deal. And that’s a start.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone in "Donnie Darko"

But we’ve reached a point where it’s all but impossible for a giant first-run theater to compete with the multiplexes, and it’s silly to try. Your film editor managed an old movie palace about a decade back, and the math just doesn’t work out, in New York or anywhere; you go retro and show old movies that lose something on the television (or laptop, or iPhone screen), you do special events left and right, you change the schedule every day and make it a destination, rather than yet another theater that’s showing Furious 7.

That said, you can only put so much responsibility on the backs of the people who run these venues. We — whether you’re part of that collective as a moviegoer, a film historian, an event planner, or a festival programmer — have to be the people who come, to borrow a bit of the Field of Dreams parlance. Sometimes it’s more trouble to get to these venues, to patronize them or to book them, but it’s worth the effort, because they’re that important.

If literally thousands of our museums were razed for parking lots and Duane Reades, people would be up in arms — and rightly so. But our movie palaces have a similar place in the culture; they’re where we go to see works of art (Furious 7 notwithstanding), and they’re often, architecturally speaking, works of art themselves. Theatrical viewing is perched at a precarious point, where the expense of the outing, the aforementioned irritations, and the collapsing theatrical-to-home window increasingly threatens to render forever moot the entire idea of “going to the movies.” But as long as we’re going, we should make an effort to go to the houses that are more than just real estate and cup holders. It’s sort of the least we can do.