Sun sets on Sunshine Cinema
by Brianna Rose Zimmerman
This is what it is to witness the life of a building in New York City. Locals, transplants, and natives of Harlem or the Upper East Side see a dollar pizza place become a smoothie shop, an aging church turn into an Apple Store. We walk by buildings birthed in an age of wealth, and years later we observe paint jobs worn, stone steps crumbled. Once-glorious arches and curvy masonry lose their brilliance, until, one day, we watch chain link fences rise around construction areas and men in hard hats make ridiculous amounts of noise for months on end. Not all gorgeous buildings in New York City meet this end—but Sunshine Cinema will.
Sunshine Cinema was once a movie theater staple in the Lower East Side, where many NYU students live, socialize, and isolate themselves in their apartments, rarely going out. In its heyday, the Cinema was popular for date nights, lonely nights for college freshmen who haven’t figured out what’s up yet, and the myriad of NYU film buffs geeking out to new and old movies alike. The building’s curvy exterior and faded yellow color once shone in the lights of East Houston Street as small crowds gathered outside after seeing a show. The large SUNSHINE letters floated above them against the New York evening blue. It will be bulldozed and renovated in the next few years to become a nine-story office space and boutique. (At least it’s not becoming a parking lot.)
The Sunshine Cinema building has been around since 1909, back when it was a site for Yiddish Vaudeville acts and films. It was bulldozed to the ground in 1916, only to reopen a year later as the site we know and love, the Sunshine Cinema. It was closed soon after to become a warehouse for over 50 years, as WWI and WWII passed. Then it reopened in 2001 as the Sunshine Cinema and lasted through September 11th, the Great Recession of 2008, and the tenure of President Obama. The Lower East Side community petitioned to keep it as a public space, but according to the New York Times, the building had been remodeled so many times that it didn’t end up passing. Because of its private ownership, it was known as what’s called an “as-of-right project,” meaning developers could build a project on the lot without any community review. The C3 Community Board of the Lower East Side, therefore, gets no say in what the project will become, according to Susan Scheltzer, the media contact for C3.
The closing of the theater coincides with the rapid rise in Moviepass since 2017. MoviePass is almost too easy to use: you can see a movie every day without spending any money, on a whim, at almost any corporately owned theater or independent film center in the city (Landmark theaters excluded). It’s been around since 2011, but lowering their prices from $40/month to $9.99/month in 2017 raised the number of subscribers from around 20,000 to over 600,000 and rising. There is a debate over whether MoviePass is sustainable: as MoviePass pays the theaters for every movie their subscribers see, the question remains whether the $9.99 from each subscriber will balance the $13+ movie charges, per movie, that the theater charges. The financial benefits of MoviePass for college students is undeniably large—but does it actually give more power to movie consumers, or is that power being concentrated elsewhere? Is the shift in power away from large movie theater corporations and towards owners of subscription services, similar to the way insurance companies have power over medicine providers? Or, is this simply a way to open up movies and gathering spaces to become more regular, rather than a treat or a night out?
MoviePass is super popular among college film geeks like myself. I’ve watched it become a fad among my peers, allowing cheaper movie dates and more consistent movie screenings. It’s perfect for college students, but while I started writing this article I wondered what the effects of MoviePass were on the theaters who wouldn’t adopt the subscription method. The answer? They’ll be gone within the year.
The question of how movie theaters are going to survive in the long-run has been examined on various websites and in the arts sections of local newspapers. It seems that the 2010s have seen the close of a lot of smaller movie venues around New York City, while the ones that haven’t closed have added larger and larger doses of money to the seating, concession stands, and staffing services in order to try to keep movie theaters relevant. The International Film Center added food service and is currently working on an expansion, and the Quad Cinema, located in the East Village, has also renovated its food services in the past year.
Movie theaters themselves mean a lot to me—walking into City Cinemas East’s five cinemas, extra-large screens, wide staircases, and iron balconies make it a magical, elegant place to see a movie. It’s romantic—one of those spaces where, opening the door, there’s something different than what you imagined inside. We are full of those spaces in New York, ones that are not exactly alternative and not exactly commercial, but made to showcase something that will hopefully make you feel something. They make you forget the traffic and emails and text messages waiting for you, and make you appreciate the years of work and stories that filmmakers put into whatever you’re about to see. It’s like a campfire on a cold night, a child tucked into bed, a funeral parlor or a wedding—there are certain settings or events that are made for telling stories and for talking to each other. This is why MoviePass is popular. This is why we will always need places to gather. This is why the closing of Sunshine Cinema is sad.
One night, a couple weeks ago, some friends and I were out drinking after Albert Gallatin’s Birthday Party. We wandered to some bars on Bleecker Street, laughing and drinking with a raucous crowd, matching each other step for step. It was the kind of night where last call came at 3 a.m. and no one was ready to go home. I was locked out of my apartment and wasn’t planning on going to anyone else’s. So, not yet hungover but definitely not still drunk, we staggered to Regal Cinema 14 at Union Square for a late-night (early morning?) showing of Call Me By Your Name. Curled on each other’s shoulders, napping, and waking up for the drama, the sex, and The Monologue, we rested in this community space. There are very few places you can go at to sleep at 3 a.m. in New York City other than someone’s apartment. The movie theater is one of them, and has been for decades. Another Country, by James Baldwin, starts with the protagonist, Rufus, asleep with a protesting bladder at a movie theater in the early morning hours. I laughed as I read the opening scene, thinking of the commonality across the decades.
Sunshine Cinema was part of this culture, too. There are people who had first dates here, brought their kids to their first movies here, entered with a cloud of lonesome wandering and left blazing with triumph, or transcendence. You could see the mostly wealthy folks who dressed up to go out and see a movie, elegant and bright, chattering away as they left the theater. So, while we’ll say a long goodbye to the Sunshine Cinema, the place which held great independent film screenings, canonical cinema previews (like playing The Room every night at midnight), some of us will also thank MoviePass for making movies more affordable and more accessible at a time when the movie industry is opening up to represent more than just those in power. And some of us will curse the city for rising rent prices and the people who decided the Lower East Side should have more office space.