Movie theaters through an owner’s eyes

BY GABE HERMAN | The documentary “The Projectionist,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28, profiles Nicolas “Nick” Nicolaou, who has owned movie theaters in the city for decades.

Through Nicolaou’s story, New York director Abel Ferrara, highlights how the city’s cinemas have changed, and by extension how the city landscape itself has morphed over time. Ferrara has been making films since the ’70s, including the gritty 1992 classic “Bad Lieutenant.”

Nicolaou grew up in Cyprus, and the film features scenes shot there, showcasing its beauty and rich, diverse culture. He dropped out of school around age 12 to become a fisherman and help support his family, and came to New York as a young man in 1970.

Nicolas “Nick” Nicolaou, who owns Village East Cinema, is the subject of the documentary “The Projectionist.” (Courtesy Faliro House)

While attending school in New York, Nicolaou found work in movie theaters. At the time, the city had lots of independent movie theater and lots of adult theaters. Nicolaou worked in both, as an usher and doorman, and selling concessions and tickets, and, in general, doing whatever was needed. His first job was on the Upper East Side at the Baronet and Coronet Theaters.

As the ’70s moved along, he was able to save money and move into ownership of some theaters. He owned adult theaters because they were a reliable source of income, and also independent theaters, like the D.W. Griffith on E. 59th St., because he fell in love with cinema and the moviegoing experience.

In the film, he describes the transformative “magic” that movies can have.

“It hit me in my soul,” he said.

This is why he continues to operate independent theaters today and insists on defying the corporate takeovers that started in the 1980s.

Today, Nicolaou owns Cinema Village, at 22 E. 12th St., along with Bay Ridge’s Alpine Cinemas and Forest Hills’ Cinemart.

He cares about providing movies for the public that bring the community together for an experience. He notes that he could make a lot more money with Cinema Village by using the building in some other way, but movies matter to him.

“Movie theaters give character to the neighborhood,” he says in the film. “Movie theaters give life.”

Director Ferrara appears on screen throughout the documentary, walking and talking with Nicolaou in Cyprus and on the streets of New York. It adds the filmmaker’s own perspective on appreciating New York’s movie theater history, and contributes to the film’s relaxed feel.

Movie clips are shown throughout, as different eras and types of movies are discussed. This can add to the documentary at times, but the clips of adult movies that are shown feel unnecessary and could be done without.

But the work is successful in telling the immigrant story of Nicolaou, and through him how Gotham’s theaters have changed, including the rise of corporate multiplexes, and the decline of adult theaters in the Giuliani era. And how Nicolaou is trying to hold on to some amount of independence and community feeling in the city’s theaters.

“The Projectionist” ’s last Tribeca Film Festival showing was May 3. It is scheduled to screen at the Museum of Modern Art on Mon., May 6, at 7:30 p.m. The film has not yet received a general release date.

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