It took a village, a town and a supporting cast of hundreds of individuals, but when the Sag Harbor Cinema finally and officially opens its doors to the public over Memorial Day weekend, movie-goers will no doubt be bowled over by the results.
The cinema boasts three new theaters on two floors, plus a third floor lounge area with outdoor terraces and expansive harbor views. Going to a see a movie in Sag Harbor has been elevated to a state-of-the-art experience and one that could hardly have been imagined back in December 2016. That was the day a massive fire took out several Main Street buildings, including a large portion of the vintage cinema, which was built in 1936 by famed theater designer John Eberson.
In the months after the fire, the non-profit Sag Harbor Partnership mobilized to purchase the cinema property from owner Gerald Mallow and formed a new not-for-profit, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center. In the subsequent four-plus years, the work of reconstruction and fundraising — including $4 million contributed to the project by Southampton Town’s Community Preservation Fund (CPF) — took center stage, with a slight detour due to the pandemic.
The Community Wall just inside the front doors of the new cinema is a testament to all those who have contributed to the rebuilding effort. And next weekend, when film lovers step into the new space for the first time, they will quickly realize that gone are the clanking radiators and the permanent musty smell that long defined the theater-going experience there, replaced by modern facilities, great popcorn and a line-up of movies and events designed to appeal to all segments of the wider community.
For Jamie Hook, the cinema’s executive director, reopening the doors of the building, which was originally expected to happen in spring 2020, has been a slow and steady process and one that began with a soft opening on April 9. This was due not only to the quickly changing state guidelines on indoor venues in the face of COVID-19, but also because everything in the building is brand new, including some of the public spaces.
“Between activating every piece to this cinema, a lot is going on,” Hook said during a recent interview in Sag Harbor. “It’s not just what’s in the theaters, but what’s on the third floor. That’s a space that didn’t exist before, so our big challenge is to activate that.”
Among the facilities that patrons will find on the newly created third floor is the Rosenberg Workspace — an area suitable for meetings, parties and catered sit-down dinners — and The Green Room, which is a sky-level members’ lounge overlooking the harbor. There’s even an outdoor deck named for a famous French film director.
“It’s called the Truffaut Terrace,” said Hook. “A donor paid for the honor and we said naming rights come with the donation. She said, ‘Can I choose any name I want?’ She went with the Truffaut Terrace. What a beautiful thing to do to assign it such a good name.”
Once the cinema is fully up and running, Hook envisions film lovers meeting up on the third floor to work on screenplays of their own or gathering in the lounge after a screening to share personal reviews. But exactly how these new spaces will be utilized, ultimately, is something that will be defined by the community itself, including those who helped save the cinema on December 16, 2016.
“The intention is to have a screening for all the firefighters from all 16 departments who responded to the fire to bring them in and toast them,” Hook explained in touching on some of the opening weekend festivities. “We recognize that without them, there wouldn’t have been much to resurrect.”
To that end, currently playing in the theaters prior to the main attraction is “Our Own Main Street Fire,” a short film by Sag Harbor’s Sam Hamilton, which revisits the day of the blaze through photographs, video and first-hand accounts of some of the firefighters who were there.
“I’ve been gratified to watch Sam’s film and see people applaud when they show it in the cinema,” said Hook. “They were willing to give their all. The community has many facets. In order to rebuild the cinema, there is the community of donors and patrons, but there’s also the generosity of the community of firefighters and what they saved.”
While in its previous incarnation as an art-house theater specializing in foreign films, the Sag Harbor Cinema didn’t always appeal to everyone’s tastes, Hook stresses that this new facility will have something to offer by way of films and events for all ages and demographics.
“I hope through my personality I can make sure this theater appeals to as many different modes of the community that exist here,” he said. “That’s something I think our board strongly supports.”
To that end, in addition to a full slate of films being offered over opening weekend, the Sag Harbor Cinema will also feature a number of events, including a reception on Friday, May 28, for a gallery exhibition of 16mm filmmaking gear belonging to pioneering documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, some of which was used in the making of the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t’ Look Back.” In addition, for ages 12 and under, on Saturday, May 29, the cinema will offer a stop motion animation workshop where kids can help make a trailer for the theaters, and there will also be a showcase screening of shorts made by young local filmmakers. On Sunday, May 30, the cinema will host a conversation in both English and Spanish about Latin American cinema and its future.
While Hook also hopes to bring a game night to the cinema in the not too distant future (he is looking for a donor to sponsor the purchase of a Pingpong table and already knows where he’ll put it) and expects to work with the schools to design student film programs, after a year of watching movies on Netflix in the privacy of our own homes, he believes people are ready to come out of seclusion and get back to enjoying film as it was meant to be — on a big screen surrounded by others.
“We don’t do it just because we like film on screen, but to be in a room with someone we don’t know and behold the same thing,” he said. “And afterward, we can talk about what we’ve seen, which may be different than what they’ve seen and enjoy.
“We’re trying to remind people that in this theater, yes, there’s the greatest of the past and present of cinema. But it’s also about the film-going experience, and there is a future in that,” he said. “A cinema is not so much what’s on the screen, but what’s collected in that room. That’s why there’s The Green Room on the third floor. You can see a movie and talk about it with someone whose opinion and background is totally different from your own.”
As fears and concerns about the future of the East End swirl with every new high-end real estate transaction and business turnover, Hook feels the new not-for-profit Sag Harbor Cinema offers a model for a future that’s about embracing public access and participation rather than restricting it.
“What’s rampant in our culture is that everything is being taken private — even the waterfront. We live in a country now where the private realm threatens to overrun the public realm, but this cinema has swum upstream against that tide,” he said. “I love the Community Wall and the fact that the number one contributor is the CPF of Southampton.
“Front and center is that this place is a place for community,” he added. “At the end of the day, it’s your venue. We are just the stewards.”
Sag Harbor Cinema is at 90 Main Street, Sag Harbor. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org. A full schedule of opening events taking place over Memorial Day weekend will appear next week. Memberships to Sag Harbor Cinema start at $20 for students through grade 12, which includes $5 midweek screenings and free admission for a friend. Adult memberships start at $120 individual ($250 for families, $500 for friends) and $75 seniors, and include member pricing on admission, invites to members-only screenings, free refills on large popcorn and more.