Issue of the Week

When a Multiplex Moves Into the Neighborhood

by Rebecca Webber

18 March 02

In late 1998, residents of Brooklyn Heights learned that a 12-screen multiplex movie theater would rise in an ugly vacant lot where an X-rated theater had once stood. Many were relieved to learn of the impending addition to the neighborhood. Others were not so sure.

The naysayers felt the proposed 210-foot building would dwarf the surrounding brownstones and block their views. Others feared that crowds of moviegoers would cause traffic jams, parking problems and nightly noise. They also worried that the theater would show Hollywood's latest action flicks, drawing tons of teens to the quiet well-to-do community. In July of 2000, the theater opened for business.

"It's not as bad as our worst fears, but it's not great," said Bonita Burrell, president of a co-op on Livingston Street. "It has brought in a lot of traffic and a lot of noise. We've now got a lot of nightlife and a lot of people and a lot of cars."

On a typical weekend, the multiplex, United Artists Court Street Stadium 12, draws about 10,000 moviegoers to a neighborhood with a population of only 47,000. They arrive in droves from all over Brooklyn, by subway or by car.

"I would caution any other neighborhood," said Burrell. "A multiplex is a multiplex and don't believe anyone who tells you theirs is going to be different. They want to cater to gigantic crowds. Their business drives them to do it."

Multiplexes Everywhere

Multiplex madness hit New York at the end of the twentieth century, fueled by the perception that the city was suffering from a dearth of movie theaters. Theater companies rushed in to build huge theaters with 10 or more screens. (For an exploration of the boom, see Gotham Gazette's "Screen Play")

In 1999, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found the number of screens in Manhattan would increase by 64 percent when planned projects and those already underway were completed. That growth rate compared to a national rate of no more than nine percent.

Neighbors of the proposed new theaters reacted with a mix of enthusiasm and opposition. (For neighbors' reactions when other kinds of art institutions move in, read "Arts and Neighbors")

Some protested the multiplexes so loud and long that they blocked proposed projects. Residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn convinced a would-be developer to drop a project in their neighborhood because of parking and traffic concerns.

Not all succeed in blocking builders' plans. Developers in East New York, Brooklyn overcame residents' opposition and installed a 14-screen cinema in 1998.

"People here wanted a supermarket," Rose Pinto, the leader of a local tenants' association told the New York Times, "We get a movie theater." The tenants were concerned that the theater would draw troublemakers, even gangs. Local lawmakers argued that the cinema would more likely draw economic development.

Magic Johnson Harlem USA on 125th Street was, for the most part, welcomed by the community. Harlem moviegoers can remain in their neighborhood and see a first-run film, instead of travelling into the Bronx or down to the Upper West Side. Of course, some saw it differently and complained that the movie theater would take money out of the community. When Magic Johnson later struck a deal to revitalize a theater on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn, he pointed out that it would bring jobs into the community.

Can They All Survive?

Ironically, after the building boom of the 1990s, an excess of screens in New York City became a problem. In 2000, theater companies' stock prices plunged and many, including Carmike Cinemas and Loews-Cineplex, flirted with bankrupcy.

In Times Square, two multiplexes (one from Loews and one from AMC) stare at each other across 42nd street every day, wondering which will survive in the competition for top films and the crowds they draw.

The proliferation of multiplexes also had a harmful effect on smaller movie theaters and on those that catered to a niche audience. Chinatown once had eight theaters showing Chinese-language films. The last one closed in 1998.

On the other hand, multiplexes in underserved communities have done well financially, because they fill a void. Of the Brooklyn Heights theater, neighbor Burrell said, "I understand they are doing fabulously well." A manager at the cinema concurred.

Lower Manhattan Gains, then Loses, a Multiplex

A new multiplex in Lower Manhattan enjoyed popular support after it opened across from the World Financial Center in 1999. It saved local moviegoers from Battery Park City and surrounding neighborhoods from an uptown schlep of two miles or more.

"When it was built, some people were concerned that it wouldn't be financially viable, though we really loved the idea of the theater," said Kathleen Britton, a condo owner in Battery Park City. "There really isn't another theater downtown."

The theater closed on September 11th.

"We miss it in the same way we miss the Borders and the Duane Reade and transportation and medical facilities. Those things makes life livable," said Britton. "I would love to have the movie theater back. Not everyone is exactly in the mood for it, but at least it would give a little bit of an escape."

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