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2020 Village Awardee: Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street

Each year, Village Preservation honors the invaluable people, businesses, and organizations that make a special contribution to our neighborhoods at our Annual Meeting and Village Awards. This year, on June 17th, 2020 we will be celebrating nine outstanding awardees — RSVP here to participate virtually.

Cinema Village, located at 22 East 12th Street, is the oldest continuously operated cinema in Greenwich Village and one of the oldest continuously operated art cinemas in the city. And this year it is one of our Village Awardees!

Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street

Located in an altered former firehouse built in 1898, the theater opened to the general public on October 5, 1964 with Ingmar Bergman’s All These Women. Through most of its early years, Cinema Village was one of the city’s many repertory cinemas, showcasing vintage movies, cult classics, and contemporary favorites on double bills (aka double features) that would usually change three times a week. By the late 1980s – and due to the surge in home video, buyouts by large-name theaters, and real estate development – commercial repertory cinema all but disappeared in New York City. Cinema Village escaped closure, surviving by presenting limited engagements of unconventional first-run shows, as well as some special midnight shows such as David Lynch’s first film “Eraserhead”, which ran for a year. In the early 1990s, before Jackie Chan, John Woo, Michele Yeoh and their stunt coordinators went to Hollywood, Cinema Village became known through its annual festivals and other bookings as the place to see the Hong Kong films of what would soon be acknowledged as a golden age of film making.

22 East 12th Street c. 1940 when it was an NYC firehouse. Photo via Municipal Archives.
Cinema Village, New York, June 2008 (Courtesy: washingtonpost.com)

Cinema Village has been owned and operated by Nick Nicolaou since the 1980s. Nick immigrated to the United States from Cyprus at age 12, and started working at Cinema Village around 1975 at the age of 15. Nick eventually became general manager of Cinema Village at the age of 18, and would go onto become its owner. Nick’s history in the business has been memorialized in a movie called The Projectionist by Abel Ferrara, expected to be released in 2020. The film covers the 1970s era of film making and exhibition in New York City, when things were edgier and sleazier than they are in today’s cleaned-up scene.

Nick’s movie selections reflects a strong bias towards films that Hollywood would typically shun. He described his philosophy in our interview: “For thirty years I would play a movie because it deserved to be shown, and I didn’t care if I would make the money at the end of the day or not. I would play movies from all over America and small countries. I don’t want anyone to censor anyone.”

Censorship is an issue Nick feels passionate about — so much so that he was willing to show a film almost no one else would, in spite of threats of potentially deadly consequences. In New York City, America’s No.1 film market, Cinema Village was the only movie theater that did not bow down to the threats of a 9/11 type attack on cinemas premiering SONY’s film “The Interview” on Christmas day of 2014. According to the Cinema’s website, though they did not share support the film ‘mocking and defaming the image of another nation,” they played the film to demonstrate their belief that as an art house that freedom of expression should never be suppressed.  This in spite of a campaign of fear and intimidation and threats fo retribution by North Korea that the White House labelled a “serious national security matter” and the Defense Department described as “an act of war.”

Cinema Village remains a family-owned and operated business, and is now managed by Nick’s children. Nick truly has a love and passion for historic movie theaters and also owns the historic Alpine Cinema in Brooklyn and Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills, Queens. Nick said, “I only kept theaters that I think should mean something to people in New York.” Cinema Village’s ticket prices are deliberately kept below market rates, as the theater’s goal is affordability for its patrons. Cinema Village is home to numerous film festivals, such as the Manhattan Film Festival, Workers United, Kino from Germany, The Other Israel, African Diaspora International, Winter Film Awards International Film Festival, SR Socially Relevant Film Festival, Reel Recovery, Wildlife Conservatory, New York Short Film, Arab Cinema week, and Dan Savage’s HUMP!, where all New Yorkers are sexy. With the latest challenges faced by Cinema Village during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nick is still grateful to New York City and maintains his passion for the community. As Cinema Village nears its sixth decade, the theater is proud of its longevity and thankful for having survived the pitfalls that have taken down so many other independent theaters.

The once-essential programming format of art cinema has mostly died out in commercial movie theaters throughout New York City and the United States. We are delighted that Cinema Village has maintained its programming philosophy, which is so emblematic of the ethos of the Village. A true Village institution, we’re also thrilled that it is a 2020 Village Awardee.

Please RSVP here to participate virtually in the award ceremony at 6pm on June 17, 2020.

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