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Posts Tagged ‘vic skolnick’

The movies is a term that’s generally associated with long lines on Friday and Saturday nights at multiplexes and megaplexes, big-budget summer blockbusters, and giant tubs of butter-doused popcorn. But for the subculture of so-called “art house” moviegoers, which eschews nearly all of those things (save for, perhaps, the popcorn) the movies means something entirely different. This other type of moviegoer isn’t there for big explosions or surround sound; no, they just want to be told a compelling story and will often go to great lengths to find one.

If you weren’t looking for the Cinema Arts Centre, you might never notice it. Tucked away on the suburban side streets of Huntington, Long Island, the single-level building looks like it might be a library or a community center or maybe a day care facility–anything but a movie theater.

In 1973 two film-loving ex-Manhattanites, Vic Skolnick and Charlotte Sky, started their New Community Cinema–which later became the Cinema Arts Centre–with little more than a projector borrowed from the public library and a bed sheet hung on the wall of a friend’s dance studio.

“It’s hard to picture how little was going on in the suburbs,” says Dylan Skolnick, CAC co-director and son of Vic and Charlotte, about Long Island in the 1970s. “Here was chain theaters with new movies, that was it. No cable, no DVDs, no VHS. Just The Late Show on TV. Instead of grumbling and being miserable, they started showing movies.”

The Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island. (Photo courtesy of petrocelliinc.com).

Ginger Polisner and her husband Stuart, who sponsor two annual events at the theater, have been CAC members for over 30 years. “We had seen a small ad somewhere and we were looking for something different to do,” says Mrs. Polisner, recounting the first time they attended one of Vic and Charlotte’s film nights. “We watched a film about freedom fighters. The film kept breaking, so everyone would huddle over a fire escape, smoke cigarettes, and wait for them to fix the film. The bed sheet would move, the subtitles weren’t legible. [Afterwards] we looked at one another and said, ‘I don’t know what they put in the water, but we gotta go back to that place.’”

Today, with 8,000 members, the CAC is a long way from bed sheets and borrowed equipment. Originally “membership” entailed a suggested donation of $1 to help rent the following week’s film reel; a CAC membership now costs $55 annually and includes discounted tickets ($6 versus the non-member price of $11). For their part, the CAC–a nonprofit organization–gets cash up front to pour back into the theater.

“When you come to see Moonrise Kingdom, 50% of every dollar goes to Focus Features–we  only get to keep half,” says Skolnick. “When you buy a membership, it’s all ours to use on the many, many bills and expenses we have.” But membership fees are not just about paying the bills, says Skolnick. “We want people to feel that when they become a member, that they’re a part of our cinema family and they have involvement and feel like it’s their place.”

Though movie theaters large and small must give a large chunk of their ticket sales back to the studios, they get to keep their earnings from concessions sales. This is why moviegoers see such huge markups on items like soda, candy and popcorn at most chain movie theaters. But the CAC even does its food a little differently. Sure, they sell popcorn–organic popcorn–but their menu also includes soups, salads, wraps, and even quiche. By way of movie “candy,” they offer a variety of gourmet-style pastries and snacks. The CAC also has an intriguing weekday special: for $28, filmgoers get lunch, a movie, and a post-screening discussion with Charlotte and Dylan.

As you might guess, an art house theater like the CAC tends to skew older in terms of demographics. “The older audience is undervalued,” says Skolnick. “The younger audience might have a lot of other things they might be doing. They’re fickle.”

One attempt to expand its audience base is the CAC’s Youth Advisory Board, a project designed to engage a young film fans in the community thorough a special film series. Board members will help program the films, promote events, and fundraise.  The CAC also participates in the Summer Camp Cinema Series, which features cult classic double features during summer Friday nights such as The Matrix and Inception, to draw a younger crowd to the theater.

Jacob Stebel, 30, has been a large part of the CAC’s youth movement. Stebel has worked full-time for the CAC since he was 23, and had been a patron before that since age 15. An amateur filmmaker himself, Stebel even premiered his own film, Freaks Nerds and Romantics, at the CAC in 2010. “Vic Skolnick … gave us advice all the way through,” says Stebel about the late CAC co-founder, who passed away in June 2010. “The cinema is a fantastic resource for filmmakers. Our [theater] directors have seen more films than anyone you’ve ever met. Who better to critique your film?”

The CAC has seen many talented and notable filmmakers and actors pass through its doors over the years, from Ang Lee to Spike Lee, Carol Burnett, Steve Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub. “That’s the ace up our sleeve,” says Stebel, who believes events like these, for which someone associated with the film is invited to speak, can draw a broader audience to the theater and add value beyond just the film itself.

“I always say [the CAC] is the place my parents thought they sent me to get a college degree,” says Mrs. Polisner about the education she’s received from the theater over the years. “[College] didn’t prepare me for life the way the Cinema has. Every side of political issues, economic, environmental. Speakers from all over the world, all walks of life, actors, filmmakers, musicians, anthropologists, scientists, the Tuskegee airmen before anyone knew about them.”

Despite a loyal following and a slew of famous friends, running this or any independent theater in 2012 is not without its challenges. As movie studios are on the brink of moving exclusively to digital prints–meaning no more physical film reels–smaller theaters without the resources to upgrade to digital projectors may start to disappear.

Digital projectors, according to Skolnick, run about $70,000 apiece–meaning it would cost about $200,000 in total to upgrade his three auditoriums. “It’s unfortunate. Technology changes, the world changes. You have to move forward,” says Skolnick. On its website, the CAC has launched the Digital Cinema Campaign in an effort to raise money for its new projectors with donations from the community. (At this writing, the CAC has collected about $60,000 in donations.)

That fundraising campaign may be bittersweet for some of the long-time members like the Polisners when it comes to exposing the hidden gem they’ve enjoyed for so many years. “The Cinema is still a secret that we both want to share and guard jealously,” says Mrs. Polisner.

Still, Skolnick seems confident that the CAC is staying put, no matter what challenges it may face. “I think we’re gonna be alright.”

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