November 5, 2003

Fighting the Multiplex

Print More

Usually when people think of movie theaters, they picture ticket booths with flashing lights, rows of reclining chairs and long lines for candy and popcorn.

Not at Ithaca’s Cinemapolis or Fall Creek theaters. In the two modest yet cozy theaters, there are no flashing lights, just computer printouts of movie titles and summaries.

The theaters are small — Fall Creek has fewer than 10 rows. Patrons rarely wait in line for popcorn or for tickets — which are only $5.50 for students (except on Fridays and Saturdays).

Fall Creek Pictures and Cinemapolis, run by Lynne Cohen and Richard Szanyi, are Ithaca’s very own non-profit movie joints that pride themselves in the first run art and independent films they feature. Once upon a time, these two sister theaters were each other’s most threatening rivals. It all began in 1986, when Cohen and Szanyi decided to open Cinemapolis.

“At the time, someone else decided to open Fall Creek, but we decided that we were different enough to coexist,” Cohen said. The owner of Fall Creek at the time planned to show older films only. In an arrangement, Fall Creek couldn’t play movies younger than 18 months, while Cinemapolis couldn’t show flicks older than 18 months. Upon opening, Fall Creek had two screens, Cinemapolis one. But after a year-and-a-half, promises were broken.

Fall Creek started showing the same kinds of films as Cohen and Szanyi; by that time though most households had VCRs and there was little demand for movie theaters that showed older pictures.

“We started competing with each other, and it got pretty tense. We discussed it again and decided to buy Fall Creek out,” Cohen said.

This began a sleuth of “very good years,” explained Cohen. With huge hits such as Pulp Fiction and The Blair Witch Project, Cinemapolis and Fall Creek were quite successful. Audience members ranged from college students to retirees, and Ithaca dwellers couldn’t seem to get enough alternative films.

Still, the sudden public fascination for movies out of the mainstream did have its drawbacks.

Chain theaters built screens to appeal to moviegoers who liked artistic films. The Pyramid Mall went from having four screens to seven to 10. The Triphammer Mall opened four screens in hopes of becoming “The Cinemapolis on the Hill,” Cohen said.

From 1997 to 2000, Cohen and Szanyi’s business was in a bit of a funk.

“We had small and excellent pictures, but few people came. We got behind in our bills,” Cohen explained.

But the regulars wouldn’t let their favorite theaters fold. They had a solution: the two cinemas should become community businesses supported by concerned moviegoers.

Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Pictures would become non-profit. So far, this arrangement has worked.

“Ever since we became non-profit, we have made more educational efforts. We have a program now that’s supposed to introduce high school students to subtitles,” Cohen said.

Tuesdays at 3 p.m. are designated French film sessions at Fall Creek, free of charge. Each week, a group ranging from high school students to senior citizens watches French films and engages in discussions led by professors. Next semester, the program will switch its focus to classic, international films. This is not the only way that community members are getting involved.

The new chairs at Cinemapolis are testimony to Ithaca residents’ devotion to their neighborhood theaters.

“Since the day we opened, people loved the theater but thought the seats were terrible,” Cohen said. To cure post-movie backaches, Cohen and Szanyi organized a fundraising campaign for new seats. With thousands of dollars in donations from Ithaca families and businesses, Cinemapolis is now home to brand new, comfortable chairs.

With 12 employees working under them, Cohen and Szanyi are always on the lookout for new films.

“I read Variety and the New York Times and watch to see how movies do. For most of the films we show there is not much advertising, so a lot has to do with word of mouth,” Cohen said.

The philosophies of the two theaters are simple: “Better films — the cutting edge in new independent films and world cinema; better refreshments — homemade baked goods; and lower prices. Our ticket and refreshment prices are lower than the mall and they always will be.”

Archived article by Jessica Liebman