In 2017, U.S. movie theaters saw their lowest levels of ticket sales in more than two decades, continuing a downward trend the industry has seen since 2005. Though dwindling attendance has played a role in the closing of theaters, including the Saw Mill Multiplex Cinema in 2016 and most recently The Greenburgh Multiplex theater on Saw Mill River Road, other theaters in Westchester are finding ways to thrive.
“We continue to see a rise in our membership numbers and a steady attendance at the box office,” said Edie Demas, executive director of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville.
That follows a trend pointed out by Art House Convergence, a collaboration of North American independent theaters. According to a study launched by the organization, 55 percent of art-house theaters surveyed saw an increase in attendance in 2016 compared with the prior year.
“Our community of art houses has not seen the same decline in the box office that mainstream cinema has,” Demas said.
The five-screen cinema and education center at 364 Manville Road hosts a range of independent and mainstream film screenings, events, visiting artists and special guests. Operating with a budget just shy of $8 million, the nonprofit has an annual membership of more than 7,000.
“People like belonging to things,” Demas said. “We also offer sort of a sense of belonging and a sense of being part of something bigger.”
Elsewhere in Westchester, The Bedford Playhouse opened its doors earlier this summer following years of construction and fundraising. The 167-seat theater at 633 Old Post Road was originally opened in 1947 and was acquired by New York City-based developer Alchemy Properties in 2013. After the theater’s tenant, Ridgefield-based Bow Tie Cinemas, chose not to renew its lease in January 2015, Alchemy Properties explored converting the Bedford Playhouse into a retail space. To halt those plans, a deal was struck between Alchemy and Bedford Playhouse Inc. Since the winter of 2015, donors have come together to raise more than $7 million to renovate and operate the theater.
“We are very new,” Farr said. “People have got to get used to the idea that we’re open again.”
In the months since its opening, Bedford Playhouse has shown both new releases and classic films and plans to begin showing documentaries later this summer.
“We’re sort of testing the waters in terms of what works for us,” he said.
Construction is still ongoing at Bedford Playhouse and the theater plans to open two additional movie screens and a full cafe and bar later this year.
“We like to think that everyone knows about us, but the fact is, they don’t,” he said. “We’ve got to build our audience.”
For both The Bedford Playhouse and Jacob Burns Film Center, a key to success is a strong slate of programming.
“What we want to get across to people is we’re not just about movies,” Farr said.
Both Bedford Playhouse and Jacob Burns host conversations and question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers, actors and authors, along with live music and special guests.
“These special events are what really builds, in my view, the loyalty. The special events are really what will make the place itself special,” he said. “It takes the experience of going to the Playhouse to a whole new level. You get to a place where you say, ‘I cannot imagine not having the Playhouse in my life.’”
Special guests at the Bedford Playhouse have included former “Late Night with David Letterman” bandleader Paul Shaffer and actress Glenn Close, while Jacob Burns board member Steven Spielberg hosted a screening of “The Post”.
“It really is amazing the amount of talent that we can draw and of course, we can draw from the city as well,” Farr said. “It’s a tremendous advantage.”
“Part of the reason we’re thriving is because we have a lot of ex-city dwellers who really want art and culture to be part of their lives,” Demas said.
Similar to the Bedford Playhouse, other theaters in Westchester are also seeing new life. Billionaire real estate developer and film producer Charles S. Cohen bought The Larchmont Playhouse, an 84-year-old theater at 1975 Palmer Ave., last year and plans to transform it into “one of the finest art house/repertory theaters in the Northeast, featuring classic, foreign and independent films.”
The Mamaroneck Playhouse at 238 Mamaroneck Ave was bought by New York City developer Blue Zees Real Estate earlier this year. That theater, which had sat vacant since 2014, will be revamped and reopened as a six-screen cinema.
For Farr, one of the greatest challenges facing the Bedford Playhouse is getting the word out.
“It’s so much more than just a movie theater. We’re tremendously excited about it,” he said. “The key is making sure people know about it.”