The closing of York Square Cinema this summer left open a prime piece of retail space on Broadway, but not all students are ready to let the convenient movie-going spot be absorbed by a new chain store or restaurant.
Ward 1 Alderman Rebecca Livengood ’07 has proposed to replace York Square with a cooperative movie theater owned by Yale students, faculty and New Haven community members. Although this idea has succeeded in a few cases, city officials and film executives question its feasibility in New Haven after the failure of York Square.
As part of her economic development strategy to encourage the growth of local business, Livengood is working to create a nonprofit or for-profit cooperative theater that will show a combination of student films, old classics, and new releases. She said she wants to ensure that those running the co-op have input about what movies play there.
“It is a great space, and it would offer an opportunity to cater to the specialized interests and unique desire of the community,” Livengood said. “York Square wasn’t really in a position to do those more specialized kinds of movies, like student films, that we would offer.”
Having already garnered interest from members of the Yale Film Society, Livengood plans to keep talking to students and faculty to see if there is enough financial and volunteer support to begin the project. She then hopes to meet with the property owners and potential developers to further her plan.
Yale Film Society member Esme Vonhoffman ’06 said she thinks that it is important to keep a film culture downtown and that the YFS is eager to help Livengood.
“York Square Cinema was a great amenity when it was open and we’d love to have it back,” Vonhoffman said. “If we can come up with anything viable for a new theater, we will.”
Managers of York Square Cinema had been involved in a four-year lawsuit with 10 Hollywood movie studios in an attempt to win the rights to play more first-run films, which they ultimately lost. A theatrical distribution executive at one of the studios involved in the litigation said movie companies would not have been able to make a profit showing their films at York Square with the grosses the theater was producing. The executive — who insisted on anonymity to avoid the impression she was speaking for the studio — said she cannot imagine a cooperative movie theater sustaining itself in York Square’s place.
“Running a theater is a tough business, and you need very low costs to make it,” she said. “You would be better off finding a university-owned property that gave the co-op preferable rent, because that spot on Broadway is prime real estate.”
Examples of successful community-run movie theaters do exist, Livengood said. The Loew’s Community Theatre in downtown Fairfield, Conn. is a nonprofit independent theater staffed by volunteers. The twin screen movie theater has 600 seats and plays host to a film school as well as a film festival. Livengood said if such a theater can succeed in a smaller town than New Haven, then there should be no concern that the market here is not big enough.
Nick Shalek ’05, who will be challenging Livengood in the Aldermanic election in November, said he does not see a real demand for a cooperative movie theater because many places on campus already show student films, and Criterion Cinemas on Temple Street offers an array of arts films.
“I will be interested to see what Rebecca comes up with,” Shalek said. “The Board of Aldermen doesn’t have much sway over this issue, so I think she is being a bit naive in the process.”
Because the former York Square space is not a part of University Properties, its use will not be determined by Yale. Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander said past conversations with the building’s owners indicate that they do not plan to put it up for sale. Alexander said he has heard second hand that they may be considering a drugstore in the space, an attractive alternative for the property owners because of the high rent.
“Film lovers still have several on-campus venues for movies as well as a brand new five screen art cinema theatre complex on Temple Street,” Alexander said.