Awards Season Screening-Room Crisis Looms in NYC

As Oscar season hits, a rash of theater closures raises the question: Where are studios going to show their films to tastemakers and voters?
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The Varick, a SoHo screening room often used for awards-season events, closed in July.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

With the start of Oscar season — and hundreds of screenings for the many constituencies that influence it — just days away, there is a growing panic among publicists about the lack of suitable screening rooms in New York, where many voters, journalists and tastemakers are based. Finding a room of the right sort and in the right location has long been a problem in Gotham, veterans say, but a recent rash of closures and listings has made things worse than at any other time in recent memory, insiders say.

The Broadway Screening Room, which operated out of the Brill Building for roughly 25 years, closed in 2013. Universal's screening room closed in April when the building in which it was housed opted not to renew the lease. The Varick Room, which was operated by Tribeca Cinemas since 2003, shuttered in July. And Sony is moving out of its lush Madison Avenue high-rise in early 2016, so its 7th floor screening room soon will shift into other hands. (Paramount and Warner Bros. have midtown screening rooms, but they are used only sparingly and aren’t for rent by others.)

Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is being impacted: Lighthouse International, which leased the organization its 220-seat state-of-the-art basement theater on 59th Street since 2002, recently announced that it is relocating, forcing the Academy to pack its bags, as well. (Oscar voters have been catching contenders at other venues while a search for a new east coast home is underway.)

The DGA’s spacious theater in midtown, which is rented out by many other groups, is said to be on the market — the DGA denies this — and some think the Academy may make a play for that, since there aren’t a ton of better options around town.

The theaters of Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art and the TimesCenter offer prime locations and can accommodate sizable crowds, but at a price—and with union and vendor requirements—that keep many from using them for anything other than premieres. (Another posh premiere venue, the legendary Ziegfeld Theater, is the subject of constant sales rumors.)

Limited seating deters many from the musty Magno screening rooms and the glitzier Park Avenue Screening Room (formerly the Disney Screening Room), Bryant Park Hotel Screening Room, DigitalArt Screening Room, Dolby 88 and Dolby 24 screening rooms (88 is helped by its event space), despite their geographic convenience.

Too far downtown for many are the otherwise reputable Crosby Street Hotel Screening Room (in its swanky basement), Tribeca Screening Room, Technicolor Creative Services’ screening room (which filmmakers also use as a post-production house) and IFC Center (which reportedly will be expanding to twice its size), plus two sizable venues used by the Tribeca Film Festival, the SVA Theatre and the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

And then there is the very expensive option of renting out a house within a commercial multiplex such as the AMC Empire 25 and Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 in Times Square and the Upper West Side’s Loews Lincoln Square (where the city’s first screening of Interstellar was held on a Christopher Nolan-approved IMAX screen).

Salvation could come from two venues being built in Midtown — the SAG Foundation Actors Center and a sister Crosby Street Hotel — but they won't be ready before the Oscars. Says publicist Julie Tustin of Film Circuits, "This dire lack of inventory in New York of high-quality screening rooms will create a new side race this awards season to secure event space."