By Roger Paradiso
Cinema Village is a jewel of a theater in Greenwich Village that takes you back to the golden age of cinema, dating back to 1963. With the recent closing of the Paris Theater in midtown, the CV is the longest running art house in Manhattan. As you walk east on 12th Street you see its marquee shining brightly both day and night as the CV welcomes lovers of independent film. When you enter the lobby you can smell the fresh popcorn being made. I have had several of my films shown at Cinema Village and have attended many screenings, and always treasured the experience.
I recently talked to the current owner, Nicolas (“Nick”) Nicolaou , who arrived in New York City from Cyprus in 1970 when he was 12 years old. I asked Nick how he came to own the iconic Cinema Village: “This historic small building was bought by Nick Justin [Tzustakis] of Arista Theatres, a Greek-American born in Pennsylvania from immigrant parents from Crete. In 1963 the former fire station was converted to an art movie house for the Greenwich Village community. Nick Justin’s concept was to bring world premieres of art movies, such as Ingmar Bergman’s All These Women in 1964.”
“In 1990 he sold me the theater. The theater never made much money, but you were able to make a good living if you were a hands-on operator. When other theaters came into the picture, [there were] more than 50 new screens in the immediate area, most from big chains owned by powerful people with connections all the way up. Let me put it in another way: my poorest competitors are billionaires, theaters with some studios behind them, or owned by overseas owners who only care of how much their stock goes up.”
I asked Nick why he is continuing the mission of Nick Justin and supporting art films, also known as independent films, when the trend is to show big, studio, star-driven movies. He said, “It is true that art films have being doing less and less in theaters, and some more art houses have shut down. The easy accessibility directly to the consumer is very popular nowadays. For me, watching a movie in a dark theater with other people is what I like and will continue to do so. They want to stay home and watch Netflix, etc., watch on their iPhone… that is the freedom each person has and that is fine with me but I vote people will still like to go out, watch a movie with many other people, and this is in the nature of people, being social in some way, and nature always wins. I take it year by year to continue and hang in there because the movie experience in a movie theater is more satisfying. Filmmakers will always be in demand because it is such a great way to fulfill our basic need of storytelling.”
Roger: “Nick, how committed are you to The Village and keeping the longest running independent theater in The Village and Manhattan from closing?”
Nick: “This is coming from me, that I always vote for the working people, and support the underprivileged ones. Why do you think Workers United Film Festival is always at Cinema Village for all these years?… I do many film festivals at the CV including the Manhattan Film Festival, the African Diaspora International, Kino from Germany, the Other Israel and many others. I also am the place for independent films to go when they need a home.”
Cinema Village was the only movie theater that did not bow to the threats of a 9/11-type attack on cinemas premiering Sony’s film The Interview on Christmas day of 2014. The Interview was controversial in its satire of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Nick said, “Although we did not share the qualities of the film…as an art house…freedom of expression should never be suppressed…We do not hesitate to take a stand when the people’s first amendment rights are at risk.” The Interview screened without incident at Cinema Village.
Roger: “How long do you think you can hang out against the world of digital filmmaking and streaming services?”
Nick: “[I will] hang in there on my own two feet till I drop. I will not use the laws to become a burden to anyone, especially the New York taxpayer because I am grateful to this great city of New York and its people; I owe them and this city for shaping my life of who I am…And besides, every mom and pop cinema or retail store closing is not the best for this city.”
Nick and Cinema Village are the survivors of the “Lost Village.” Despite the ravages of “uber” gentrification and the displacement of artists and working-class citizens, Nick and several other “lifers” hang on to their businesses and their lives. To help Nick and CV survive, those in The Village need to support this gem of an independent theater that still serves fresh popcorn and screens new, exciting voices in film. Seniors and students still get in at a large discount. As Nick says: “As a kid, movies allowed me to dream of a better life, and what wonderful things life can bring when you believe in your dreams.”