Requiem for a Movie Theater (And Maybe All Movie Theaters?)
The Ziegfeld Theater isn’t much to look at from the outside. True, it has that old-fashioned marquee, with the little light bulbs and the name “Ziegfeld” written in perfect cursive, as if God himself signed his name to a building. But otherwise its exterior is totally nondescript; maybe even ugly. It’s a bland gray and black box amidst the offices and hotels on 54th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It’s not attention grabbing. It’s easy to walk by without giving it a second thought. And clearly thousands of people do exactly that every day; the theater has been losing money for years (over $1 million annually, according to The New York Post). Although the theater’s leaseholder, Cablevision, has made no formal announcement, today is apparently its last day as a functioning movie theater. After tonight’s 10PM showing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Ziegfeld closes forever.
If those passersby had stepped inside, they would have discovered the Ziegfeld’s secret: Its front doors also double as time machines, transporting ticket holders back to an era when movie theaters were rightfully referred to as palaces. Past a lobby filled with memorabilia and up a set of escalators lies the Ziegfeld’s single cavernous cinema. It holds 1,131 seats surrounded by golden curtains, crimson carpet, and crystal chandeliers. The orchestra has three different sections, each with a larger seating capacity than most multiplex auditoriums. The rear of the room holds a generous balcony for those who prefer stadium seating. It is the biggest and most beautiful room most attendees will ever watch a movie in.
Or it was until today.
The Ziegfeld is (I don’t have to use the word “was” for one more day) gorgeous, massive, and utterly unique. It’s everything, in other words, that movie theaters these are days are not. It was the de facto home of most New York film premieres in recent years, and anyone who was fortunate enough to attend one can tell you the energy in that enormous room during one of those events was absolutely electric. I had the good fortune to see the surviving members of Monty Python reunite for a hilarious Q&A at the Ziegfeld after the premiere of the documentary Almost the Truth (Lawyers Cut). I count the night I attended the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (in 70mm!) at the Ziegfeld amongst the two or three greatest moviegoing experiences of my entire life. I’ve had more spiritual experiences at the Ziegfeld than in every church or temple I’ve ever stepped foot in put together.
It’s easy for a theater to seem special when it’s full of movie stars, but one of the great things about the Ziegfeld was the way the room’s size and ornamentation turned every movie, even the crappy ones, into an event. In the Ziegfeld’s great hall, the first Transformers movie looked like a glorious epic (albeit one with a robot pissing on John Turturro). A few years ago, my brother, father, and I met up to watch X-Men: Days of Future Past there. It’s rare for the three of us to get together for a night out, and the venue made it feel that much more noteworthy — and we were there to see a movie where Halle Berry shot lightning bolts at future robots.
By the time the Singer men got to the Ziegfeld in early June of 2014, Days of Future Past had already been out for a couple of weeks. But attendance for one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer was still alarmingly sparse (maybe 100 people tops), and we all commented on the fact that this gigantic theater was operating at less 10 percent capacity. Anyone who’d visited the Ziegfeld in the last couple years has a similar story. We all knew the end was coming. It’s not surprising the Ziegfeld’s closing; it’s more surprising that it lasted this long. That doesn’t make this news any less depressing.
Younger moviegoers may look at the hullabaloo around the Ziegfeld’s closure with a skeptical shrug. In 2016, you can watch a movie streaming in HD on your phone without getting out of bed. If you can muster the energy to roll your lazy carcass off the couch, you can go to a multiplex and choose from a dozen different movies to suit whatever mood you’re in. Who cares about some big theater that no one went to? If there was demand for the theater, it wouldn’t be closing.
Modern movie culture — and really all of popular culture in general — is defined by choices. Dozens of motion pictures open every week, with even more options popping up on VOD or Netflix or Amazon or HBO GO. There are more films, and more places to watch those films, than ever before. In an era of mega-multiplexes and streaming entertainment, there’s really no need for a room where 1000 people can congregate to watch a single movie. For that reason, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the perfect final film at the Ziegfeld; it’s a true four-quadrant event. Everyone went to see Star Wars. But when was the last time before Star Wars that that happened? Avatar? That was six years ago.
The death of the Ziegfeld represents the death of that kind of monoculture, but it means more than that too. The Ziegfeld, which was built in 1969 and boasts a 1100 square foot screen, belongs to a time when a night out at the movies was special and immersive and transportive. Most of the Ziegfeld and its ilk’s replacements are barely even theaters; they’re little rooms where they show movies on the walls. I recently went to a multiplex here in New York City and wound up in an auditorium of about 30 seats. When that’s the “big-screen experience,” why would you waste all the time, effort, and money to leave your house?
Even more importantly, the Ziegfeld harkens back to a time when viewers actually gave a crap about how their movies looked, and paid attention to the thing they were watching onscreen. Increasingly, access is the only metric that cinephiles seem to care about. So what if Netflix’s visual presentation sometimes pixelates and the site has basically no movies made before the year 1970? I can watch it on iPhone! (Speaking of which: The Ziegfeld is a terrible theater for 2016 for this very reason; from the back of the auditorium you could potentially see hundreds of jerks checking their smartphones.) If Netflix was a movie theater it would be a building with 6,000 tiny rooms, showing crap you didn’t want to watch, populated by geeks wandering around in their pajamas.
Modern technology has given movie lovers many gifts. But those gifts come at a steep price, namely spaces like the Ziegfeld, where film (actual, tangible celluloid) could be projected the way its creators intended, and you could participate in that singular experience that is unique to movies, where hundreds of people gather to sit in the dark and look at light projected onto a screen.
I think many New York City moviegoers (myself included) took that experience for granted for too long. We assumed a city as important and committed to the arts as ours would support the Ziegfeld. That was a mistake, one we’re going to pay for dearly. Take my advice: If there is still a great movie theater near you, patronize it. Cherish it. Vote for it with your money. Because it may not be there forever.
The next time crowds gather at the Ziegfeld it won’t be for Star Wars. It will be for a banquet or party; the owners plan to turn the last great movie palace in New York City into an event space. The Ziegfeld’s time is over. But let’s try not to forget its values. Movies matter. But how they’re seen should matter just as much.