Beneath an illuminated marquee reading “Sic Transit/Gloria Mundi/1970-2005/Sayonara,” the passerby will notice a vacated space strewn with discarded artifacts — old reels and tattered posters — and a rather lengthy note detailing a departure of a New Haven landmark. Other notifications of York Square Cinema’s closing have been crudely ripped off and, aside from the theater’s requiem, the only coherent posting is its cinematic swan song: a poster for “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
On July 15, New Haven’s iconic York Square Cinema surrendered to years of struggling business and turmoil. While Yale students and New Haven denizens alike are surprised by the Elm City’s cultural loss, the theater had long been experiencing financial crises as well as devastating conflicts with Hollywood distributors.
For years, the theater had encountered supreme difficulty in acquiring films from major Hollywood production companies. The theater’s location, amidst Yale sweatshirts and a vibrant urban community, diverges wildly from the sleepy suburban strip malls that usually house more mainstream franchises. York’s location is the stuff of antiquity in the movie theater industry.
The result of this predicament was an atrophy of York’s movie selection abilities. Now in a monopolized industry, York Square had to seek permission from Showcase Cinemas, a theater franchise with outposts in Orange and North Haven, before playing any of its first-run movies. With an increasing dearth of Showcase approvals, York faced a drought of what it could play. The unfortunate catch-22 of the scenario, however, is that while Showcase Cinemas filched York’s indie gems, the franchise’s clientele preferred the more glossy blockbuster type of movies. Though these indie movies might have flourished at York, they suffered dismal ticket sales at its suburban competitor; York management woefully expressed that “it’s as if the movie companies, and Orange, are in business to take in the least amount of money.”
An alternate theater, Criterion Cinemas, opened last year on Temple Street, showcasing a comparable film selection. While Criterion lacks the distinct New Haven personality and intimacy of York Square — which offers complimentary Koffee Too? coffee — it showcases a gleaming array of upper-tier delicacies such as decidedly corporate cappuccinos. And while one of the reasons York Square cited for its close was the “terrible leaking (especially in cinema 2) and flooding,” Criterion boasts an overwhelming scent of newness.
Criterion Cinemas manager Henry Gibbs said although Criterion’s scope is restricted to art house cinema, he remains optimistic about the future of his theater in New Haven.
“We’re not faced with similar problems to York Square,” Gibbs said. “We have more interest to the public. We offer a wider variety of movies, concessions and specials such as our late night and morning series.”
Although Gibbs reported a slight increase in business upon York’s departure, York’s management did not point to Criterion’s opening as a scapegoat for its demise. In a letter to the New Haven Advocate, former York Square manager Peter Spodick blamed Hollywood’s failure to distribute films to the theater.
“It is they who are closing the York Square,” wrote Spodick, who did not comment for this story.
From 2000 to 2004, Spodick’s theater was embroiled in a strenuous lawsuit concerning the studio restrictions. The York Square management dolefully commented on a lack of support and media coverage during the lawsuit from both the Yale empire and surrounding community. Though Spodick commended Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s continual awareness, he sharply criticized Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s apathy. Blumenthal said his office sought to be as helpful as possible without crossing legal boundaries.
“We spoke with Mr. Spodick a number of times seeking to offer advice and assistance,” Blumenthal said. “But there was simply no legal basis for my office to intervene. There were no facts that demonstrated a violation of statute.”
York’s note also begrudgingly mentions the University’s lack of aid or concern when such Hollywood heavyweights as Steven Spielberg refused to have their films play in the Elm City. The missive mentions, “We mistakenly believed that Yale’s planners, who have been so publicly active on behalf of wealthy downtown developers, have valued the presence of the York Square.” A benevolent gesture, management asserted, from an institution as magnanimous as Yale could surely have cured their problems.
Associate Vice President of the Department of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said he thinks the claim that Yale could have helped an independent movie theater sue a third party is inappropriate.
“The theater closed because it was not able to attract customers,” Morand said. “Meanwhile, most New Haven businesses and cultural venues are doing very well and the city continues to see more people coming to eat, shop and enjoy the arts, and new stores and restaurants opening.”
The University has not yet slated a replacement for the cinema. Recognizing new opportunities in a coveted Broadway retail space, Ward 1 Alderman Rebecca Livengood ’07 is optimistic about the possibilities for local cinema in the near future. Central to her platform is a revitalization of the New Haven arts scene, including the creation of a cooperative movie theater in place of York Square. The cooperative would entail Yale student and faculty collaboration to fund and operate a theater that would cater to the unique desires of the community.
“If the theater were able to play more first-run movies, that would probably help, but it is also a great space and a great opportunity to screen some Yale student films or other specialized interests,” Livengood said. “This is an opportunity to engage with the city in a nonpolitical way and help shape the quality of life in New Haven, which is already good but we can make it better.”
Removing the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” poster would be a fine place to start.