Express Sessions Puts Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center Into Focus

Panelist April Gornik speaks during The Express Sessions: Here Comes the Sag Harbor Cinema! event at The Amerocan Hotel on Friday, October 18. Michael Heller photos

Three years after the Sag Harbor Cinema, a vital, if at times under frequented center of the village’s cultural life, was badly damaged by fire, the new Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center that will take its place is coming into sharper focus.

Representatives of the cinema, village government, businesses, and the broader community discussed a vision of a facility that will offer a wide range of programming and play a bigger role in the village’s cultural and economic life at the latest Express Sessions event, “Here Comes the Sag Harbor Cinema,” on Friday, October 18, at the American Hotel.

The panel was heavily weighted with cinema representatives including Gillian Gordon, its executive director, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, its artistic director, April Gornik, the president of its board of directors, and Susan Lacy, a filmmaker and member of the board. They were joined by Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy and David Brogna, the vice president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and an owner of the In Home shop on Main Street.

The center’s representatives admitted there remain many loose ends, from a hard date for its reopening, to the need to raise another $4 million to complete the project. They stressed their goal was to create a facility that would appeal to a wide range of residents, from those who joined the sometimes sparse audiences when the theater showed obscure art films, to teenagers, whose movie experience is often limited to what they watch on their smart phones.

Panelist Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.

“We are very fortunate to inherit the audience that the cinema had,” said Ms. D’Agnolo Vallan. “At the same time, I know the incredible support that the community has given to the rebuild goes beyond the original audience, so we need to broaden what we have. It is very exciting, but it is very daunting.”

Saying she would like to bring a broad range of programming to the new center, Ms. D’Agnolo Vallan promised everything from first-run movies to film classics, documentaries, and art films. “We are going to try to do it all,” she said.

“As a filmmaker I’m also an audience member. I’m one of those maybe 16 people who always went to the Sag Harbor Cinema and enjoyed it and always knew there would be something there I wanted to see, which you weren’t going to see someplace else out here,” said Ms. Lacy, who created the American Masters series on PBS and most recently directed “Jane Fonda in Five Acts” and “Spielberg” for HBO.

While Ms. Lacy said she supported the idea of broader programming, she stressed it was important to retain some of the cinema’s original appeal. “This was the only place out here for a long time where one could see foreign films, independent films, and documentaries,” she said.

Susan Lacy

As part of the renovation, the large single auditorium on the first floor has been divided into two smaller rooms, one with 227 seats, the other 98 seats. A small cafe, concession stand, and restrooms will also be on the first floor. The second floor will include a projection room, office space, and a 40-seat screening room. The third floor will include a rooftop terrace, a virtual reality room, which can double as classroom space, and a lounge area with a food preparation area.

Ms. Gornik said the board made the decision to expand the interior of the building early.

“We realized in order to be truly sustainable, we had to add as much as we could to make this building really fleshed out and give it the potential it really deserves,” she said. “We have to budget for myriad of little things that will make the cinema truly functional and they all add up.”

As a result, she said another $4 million is needed to complete the project, and future fundraising will be required to help underwrite programming.

That said, anyone hoping to catch a Christmas matinee of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” will be disappointed because the original plans to reopen the theater in December have proven to be too ambitious, Ms. Gordon said.

“Has anyone ever built a house?” She responded when asked about the opening date. “We were hoping we would be open before Christmas, but it doesn’t look that way unfortunately.”

She cited delays in the arrival of special acoustical tiles, projection equipment, and sound equipment, noting the redesigned structure is a “very complex building.”

Sag Harbor Village Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy

Mayor Mulcahy said she has been looking forward to the return of the cinema since the fire.

“It’s a huge point of pride for Sag Harbor, and Sag Harbor would not be the same without it,” she said. She added that the village would work with the cinema center to solve problems that might arise from its potential to attract large crowds to the village.

“I hope it is so successful that we have parking issues until we are all blue. That’s the best thing that could happen,” she said, although she added the cinema arts center and the village are working together “to find some solutions for deep summer when 200 extra cars in this village would not be a lot of fun.”

As a local business owner, Mr. Brogna said he hoped the new cinema would contribute more to Main Street culture. “The old cinema was not a participant in the community. It was a dead building in the middle of the village. It stood apart,” he said. “The opportunity is for the cinema to become an integral part of the community and not just a destination.”

He said owners of the 17 restaurants in the village were excited about the prospect of customers being lured to the village for a dinner and a movie. “The restaurants will truly benefit, and they are thankful,” he said. “The opportunity is how can we make that spill over into the shops and service businesses that are in the village?”

Most in attendance seemed more concerned about programming. With attorney John Leonard, one of the Session sponsors, asking if the cinema would be able to compete with the offerings of the East Hampton Cinema and obtain a distribution deal that would enable it to show popular films. Michael Hemmer asked if the theater would cater to groups that might like to rent the facility for private events.

Luke Babcock poses a question to the panel.

Lisa Field, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and an owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, asked about whether the cinema would be able to keep prices affordable.

“You hear a lot of young families say they can’t afford to take their family to the movies,” she said. Ms. Gordon said ticket prices would be kept below prices charged at commercial movie houses. “How about $11?” She responded when Ms. Field said ticket prices typically range from $12 to $15. Plus, Ms. Gordon said, there would be various forms of memberships that would allow patrons access to specific events.

Ms. Gornik added that as part of the deal that led Southampton Town to earmark money from the Community Preservation Fund for the project, the cinema had agreed to keep its basic ticket prices 20 percent less than the going rates charged by local movie theaters.

The affordability theme was also raised by Kathryn Menu, the co-publisher and editor of The Express. “A lot of the programming that is available to children is really out of reach for a lot families,” she said, asking how the cinema arts center planned to avoid that.

The answer, Ms. Gornik replied, was that it would likely have to run continual fundraising appeals like most other nonprofits.

Luke Babcock, another session sponsor, also asked if the center was aiming to break even or would rely on fundraising in the long run. Furthermore, he wanted to know how it would gauge whether or not it was providing the broader community with what it wanted. “I think there is a long-term conflict in that what’s popular isn’t necessarily what’s critically acclaimed,” he said.

“We are trying to establish an open-door policy here, where we want to hear what the community wants,” said Ms. Gornik. “We want to know what the needs are. We want to know how we can be helpful to people and young families with kids.”

Later, Ms. D’Agnolo Vallan addressed the same issue.          “Obviously, you want to please and satisfy your community and offer as many variations of films as people want to see,” she said. “I intend for the relationship with the audience to be a conversation. So it goes both ways. We are just going to have to find each other in this new building.”

“We can bring in extraordinary filmmakers and writers and producers and experts to support our screening as well as having retrospectives, ” Ms. Gordon said. “So that at the same time as seen a fabulous new film, we are also seeing the last film the director made and the first film the director made and that’s where the education fits in.”

Mr. Brogna said as a shopkeeper he is often asked what the plans are for the theater and doesn’t know what to tell people. He asked for the cinema arts representatives to give him their “elevator speech” by summarizing the main three things they hoped to achieve.

The answer was provided by Ellen Dioguardi, the events coordinator for The Express, who said she is asked the same thing.

“Yes, it’s going to be foreign and art films. Yes, it’s gong to be new run films. Yes, there’s going to be films for kids,” she said. “Those three things are going to cover it, and if you can say yes to that, then he’s got his answer.”