In an age dominated by blockbuster films, movie theaters that show anything other than the top 15 newest Hollywood films are scarce. Fortunately, there are still a few with some respect for what film used to be before the commercialism. New York City is full of movie theaters playing all the same top grossing films, but there are a handful off the beaten path if you know where to look. Here are some of the coolest, oldest, quirkiest, and most beautiful places we found in the city.
9. Nitehawk Cinema – Williamsburg and Park Slope
Photograph by Sakeenah Saleem
Nitehawk Cinema, established in 2011 in Williamsburg is halfway between a restaurant and an independent movie theater. Guests are treated to a full menu of bar food and cocktails during each feature. It is noted as the first movie theater to overturn the prohibition-era New York state law that prevented movie theaters from also selling alcohol. A new location opened up in south Park Slope (shown above).
8. Village East Cinema – East 12th Street
The Village East Cinema dates back to the 1920s when it was the Yiddish Art Theater. Visited by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin and Albert Einstein, the theater also housed the original productions of Grease, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is still operational today, and shows a mix of popular and independent films.
7. The Paris Theatre – West 58th Street
The Paris Theatre on 58th Street is a single room theater opened in 1948 by Pathé Cinema. Marlene Dietrich cut the inaugural ribbon on its opening night. The theater contains 581 seats and often shows art films as well as international films in their original language. Additionally, it was one of the first theaters to show the 2011 French romantic comedy The Artist, which went on to win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards. [Update: The Paris Theatre closed in 2019 but was revived by Netflix, which will show special events, screenings, and theatrical releases of its films at the iconic theater].
6. The Film Forum – West Houston Street
The Film Forum is one of the city’s largest independent film theaters. It was founded as a nonprofit in 1970 for the screening of independent films and was originally a single room with 50 folding chairs, one projector, and a $19,000 budget. It is known for its unusual selection of films and is hailed as one of New York’s leading art house theaters. Today, the theater operates three screens and controls a $4.3 million budget.
5. IFC Center – West 4th Street
The IFC Center on West 4th Street is an independent theater that opened in 2005 in the building that was once the Waverly Theater. Each week, it hosts events like classic movies on the weekends, cult films at midnight, and “Short Attention Span Cinema,” a screening of short films before most features.
4. Anthology Film Archives – Bowery
The Anthology Film Archives in Bowery describes itself as “an international center for the preservation, study, and exhibition of film and video, with a particular focus on independent, experimental, and avant-garde cinema.” Founded in 1970, it maintains a large collection of antique film it has worked to preserve throughout the years and is the first museum solely dedicated to film study. It regularly shows screenings of cult classics and independent projects.
3. The Museum of the Moving Image – Astoria, Queens
The Museum of the Moving Image is not a theater in the most typical sense. It was opened in 1988 as the American Museum of the Moving Image, and maintains a collection of television, film, and digital medium. Its theater, designed by Thomas Leeser, is the newest one on this list, opened in 2011, and is named the Sumner M. Redstone Theater in 2013 after a donation given by the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation. Seeing the place alone is worth the trip, but while you’re there catch the exhibit Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men and step onto the actual sets of the hit television show.
2. Ziegfeld Theater – West 54th Street
The Ziegfeld Theater on West 54th Street is a luxury single-room theater that opened in 1969. It was named in honor of the original Broadway Ziegfeld Theater. For its time, it was one of the largest single theaters in the country and has served as the site of numerous movie premiers, including the 1977 opening of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Update: Unfortunately, the theater had been losing money for several years and its owners closed it and turned it into an event space.
1. Landmark Sunshine Cinema – East Houston Street
From the book New York Nights
The Sunshine Cinema is a theater owned by Landmark Theatres, occupying a building that was once the Houston Hippodrome motion picture theatre and a Yiddish vaudeville house. While the building was constructed in 1893, the Sunshine Cinema has been operating for 2001. Sunshine is an art house dedicated to independent films. Landmark Theatres, which often renovates the buildings it purchases to restore its original feel, owns several other vintage buildings. [Update this theater has closed and was demolished].
Bonus: Spectacle – Williamsburg
We’re saving the best (or the smallest) for last. Spectacle is an independent theater in Williamsburg that contains only 30 seats and is run by volunteers. Its drawing point is that it shows films that probably do not get screened anywhere else. Specializing in only the obscurest of art films and overlooked works throughout the decades, Spectacle runs seven days a week.