Last week, federal prosecutors in Manhattan arrested Norman Adie, owner of the Brooklyn Heights Cinema (and former owner of the Pavilion in Park Slope), charging him with securities and wire fraud. It’s alleged that Adie attracted $530,000 in investments for an expansion of the Henry Street twin cinema—plans were to add two more screens, and possibly to add multiple stories of condominiums—but instead shuffled the money between accounts, using it “on personal expenses and to keep his struggling theaters afloat.” (He also owns a couple of screens in Pennsylvania.) Which is both surprising and maybe sadly unsurprising given the realities of indie film exhibition in the city right now.
In January of 2008, the Brooklyn Paper reported on the Brooklyn Heights Cinema’s expansion plans:
Husband and wife owners Norman Adie and Kasey Gittleman have wanted to expand the Heights Cinema for years, but only recently hired an architect to redesign the building…
They’ve also hired a lawyer to keep them from falling afoul of the city’s Byzantine landmarks code. The theater, though not itself a landmark, is in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, meaning that the couple is limited in what it can do with its building.
In addition to doubling the screens, the couple is planning to convert an old bakery in the basement into a wine bar and restaurant…
One interpretation I’ll offer is that building codes made expansion unfeasible just as the economy was tanking, and shuffling investment money around to cover losses began to seem like the best idea.
This is, obviously a bummer: the Heights Cinema is a small, independently run theater that serves its neighborhood well, with intimate but attractive screens and a cornershop vibe. It serves upper-middlebrow fare for residents of the neighborhood—often the elderly—who didn’t head into the Angelika (or, heaven forfend, the Lincoln Plaza) in time to catch the latest arthouse flick to get a good review from A.O. Scott or Keith Uhlich.
As business plans go, this is obviously somewhat limited. You’ll note that a similar neighborhood theater, the Quad, which for a long time mixed fare from smaller distributors with late first-run studio indies, has lately taken to renting screens to small independent films for weeklong runs. The Brooklyn Heights Cinema rents out to the Brooklyn International Film Festival, but that’s about it (and now that festival head Marco Ursino has also founded indieScreen, we’ll see how much longer that lasts).
The Brooklyn Heights Cinema doesn’t really have the money or the profile to compete with the Manhattan theaters—or BAM Rose Cinemas—for first crack at the latest from Sony Classics or Miramax or the Weinstein Company, and it doesn’t have the kind of relationship with smaller distributors that Cinema Village has developed. (There may also be a lack of interest in programming the sort of fare that the NYU-adjacent Cinema Village gets. Geography is destiny and all that.) In the absence of a similar niche, and without the kind of corporate connections that give the Landmark Sunshine access to Magnolia Pictures and the IFC Center access to IFC Films, it’s tough for the Brooklyn Heights Cinema to offer the kind of programming that can justify its existence economically—hence, one supposes, the desperate shell game to stay afloat.