Brooklyn Heights, NY – Catching Up With Kenn Lowy: The Last Owner of Brooklyn Heights Cinemas

posted by ThrHistoricalSociety on January 14, 2017 at 3:47 am

Medium

From Brooklyn Heights Blog: Brooklyn Heights Cinemas, at the end of its 42-year run, was the oldest independently-owned cinema in all of New York City. When the cinema shut off its projectors for good in 2014, the neighborhood collectively mourned the loss of yet another community sanctuary. A place where neighbors and visitors gathered for shared experiences. A place where you walked in and the owner and employees knew your name and what you liked without asking. If you were a regular customer, you probably miss the last owner, Kenn Lowy, as much as the cinema itself. When the neighborhood thinks of the old cinema, we think of Kenn, although he only owned it for its last three years. In the interview below, Kenn tells his story of his one-man mission to save the cinema, a labor of love that was life-altering in both good and bad ways.

BHB: How did you become the last owner of Brooklyn Heights Cinemas?

KL: I had been going to the cinema off and on since I was 17 years old. My family had moved from Philadelphia to Cobble Hill in the late 70’s and that was the only cinema around. I lived for a time in Brooklyn Heights, Vinegar Hill, and Park Slope, and then I moved away for a few years. And when I moved back 20 years ago, it became my cinema again. I used to go there all the time. Then, in late 2010, there was an article in one of the local papers about the owner being indicted for wire fraud. There had been several times before when the cinema almost went out of business. I wondered what was going to happen to the cinema. So I went and saw Amy, the Manager there. She knew me as someone who saw almost every movie they played. I asked her what was going to happen and she half-jokingly said, “Do you want to buy the place?” Like an idiot, I said, “Yeah, maybe.” She said, “I don’t know if he wants to sell it or not, but I’ll ask.” Literally, a week later, I was sitting down with the owner and we started talking about how I could buy the place. That’s what led to it. It would have gone under unless someone bought it. The cinema had been losing money for years. The owner had other cinemas, one that was making money and another one that was going nowhere. It took about six months of negotiating. I had no money, so I cashed in my IRA’s and maxed out my credit cards. And that’s how I bought the place.

BHB: What led you to take such a risk?

KL: {Laughs} I thought at the time that I could make it work. I didn’t think they were getting the best movies. They were getting good ones, but not the ones enough people wanted to see to make it viable. But I wanted to keep it as an independent cinema. I thought I could make it work. I never thought I would make money from it. But as long as I could break even, I was going to be happy, just to keep it going. Personally, it was an important place to me. It had been my local movie theater, like for many in Brooklyn Heights. This was our hometown movie theater.

BHB: At the time, were you making a living with a day job?

KL: Yes. I was a computer consultant, mostly Apple computer stuff. I had been doing that pretty much most of my life. Until my early 30’s, I was a journalist and a musician. I’m still a musician, but that’s how I used to make a living. Then the music industry changed and journalism changed, where I really couldn’t make a full time living at it. That’s when I got into computers and I’ve been doing that for the last 25 years.

BHB: When you bought the cinema, did you think, “If I break even I’ll be okay because I could support myself with the computer consulting?”

KL: No, when I said “break even,” I meant to be able to support myself, where maybe I wouldn’t be saving a lot, but I wouldn’t be losing money. I tried doing the consulting half the time and the cinema the other half, but that just wasn’t working. The first couple of months, I was at the cinema on the weekends and just hanging out. But after that, I was pretty much there full-time, along with my manager and the projectionist. After a few months, I wanted to be more hands-on and not being there didn’t make much sense.

BHB: During the three years when you owned the cinema, did you see the numbers or the character of the audience change at all?

KL: The numbers definitely went up, which was desperately needed. We were getting people from other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. What I was able to do was get a lot of exclusives for Brooklyn. So we had a lot of movies for which we were the only theater in Brooklyn playing them. Sometimes it really paid off because they were big films, and sometimes nobody wanted to see them anyway.

BHB: How did you pull off getting so many exclusives?

KL: Some of it was luck and most of it was because of my buyer, Steve Florin, who was really looking out for us and wanted the cinema to do well. It shouldn’t have mattered to him personally, since he would get paid the same either way. But he really wanted to help and made some great deals. Sometimes, there were so many films out, there wasn’t room at BAM or Cobble Hill to play them all. So they would come to us and ask, “Hey, would you want to play this?” Every once in a while, it was a film where it was like, “Are you kidding me? Of course I want to play this.” And then certain distributors would just come back to us and ask if we would take other films.

BHB: Can you name some of the films that sold the most seats at the cinema?

KL: Oh sure, I can think of a couple that really stand out, and it was interesting because they were films that were either exclusives or close to it. One was The Descendants and the way we got it was interesting. It was playing at BAM and then Cobble Hill, and after New Year’s, the other theaters started playing other films. And it was still doing well, and then it got nominated for the Oscars and then the Golden Globes, and we were still playing it. It did so well and we played it for so long, that regular customers started coming in and asking, “When are you getting a new film?” And I would tell them, “It’s doing so well, I can’t let it go!” They were very understanding.

The other film was The Artist, a black and white film. I saw it at the NY Film Festival and I really wanted it. I told my buyer and he said, “I’m not sure how well it’s going to do.” But we got it and it was the same thing – got nominated for the Oscars, and then the Golden Globes. We played that for a long time too.

The third one was Margin Call, the film about the Lehman Brothers collapse. We were the only theater in Brooklyn that had it. And I had never even heard of it. So my buyer called and said, “I’ve got this movie and it’s going to do well.” I looked it up and saw the trailer and thought, “Yeah, we should show it.” About a month later, we were the only theater in NYC showing it. So people from all over the city were coming to see it.

BHB: What films did the worst?

KL: One was a foreign film from Czechoslovakia. I can’t remember the name. Usually you have to guarantee a two-week run, but we had to stop showing it after one week. It was a shame, because it was a good film, but no one wanted to see it. Even the distributor called me and said, “Listen, we’ll let you out of this.”

And then there were a couple of small, local films that I played because it was the right thing to do and I wanted to support them. One was Battle for Brooklyn about the Atlantic Yards. We played that for about a week. And we played it every Wednesday night for months and the producers did a Q and A at every showing. The film didn’t do badly, but I mention it as an example of what we tried to do as a local theater. And I really liked the filmmakers.

The absolute worst one was Jack and Jill with Adam Sandler. What happened was that we were showing a film and it wasn’t doing well. And we had a week lapse before the next film was going to be released. So I had to find something and my buyer said, “I’ll get you the Adam Sandler film for a week. It’s a terrible film, but it will make money for you.” I looked at the trailer online and it was abysmal, but I said, “Fine, it’s just a week.” Well, it did so badly, even the distributor didn’t believe it was doing that badly. So they sent someone to check on a Sunday, and that person was the only one there in the whole theater for the last two shows. My projectionist went and sat down next to her and said, “Listen, you don’t have to sit here.” After about 10 minutes, she said, “I can’t take it anymore,” and left.

BHB: When you bought the theater in 2011, did you have any idea that the building owner was planning on selling the building?

KL: No, but the owner, Tom Caruana, was very honest with me about his intention to develop the building. He gave me a 2-year lease and told me that he might give me an extension, but that he would probably develop it. So he did tell me that I might only have 2 years. He never intended to sell the building. The reason he sold it was because he couldn’t develop it. He was actually a really good guy. The original development plan didn’t have the theater in it, but there was a huge uproar, and I called him up and he said, “We changed it, the theater is in.” He had changed his mind immediately. He was a really big fan and really appreciated the support the cinema had in Brooklyn Heights and he wanted to keep it going. The rent he would have gotten was really low for the space, and he didn’t have to put us in the plan. He made me almost like a partner in the plans. When he went to Landmarks, he asked me to come and speak up on it and I said, “absolutely.” His architect asked me, “Would this work, would that work?” And he was in contact with my architect as well. Tom was a really good guy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Brooklyn Heights Association killed that plan. And they’ll say, “oh no, we don’t have that kind of power,” but they definitely did.

BHB: Do you know Tom’s background? How long he owned the building and why at that point he wanted to develop it?

KL: My understanding is that Tom inherited the building from his grandfather. What happened was that there was a 21-year lease on the theater and an automatic renewal for another 21 years. So he couldn’t do anything with it until the additional 21-year lease expired. His plan was to develop it, never to sell it. He did his due diligence. He went to Landmarks and told them what he wanted to do, worked with the staff, and showed them the plans. But by the time he went there, the staff had already told the Commissioners whether they think the plan should be approved or not. The staff told the Commissioners, “This is a good plan, it should be approved.” But the Brooklyn Heights Association was like, “oh no, we can’t do anything to that building, because the building has this brick wall with historical relevance.” And Steve Levin, who’s actually a friend of mine, I don’t mean to say anything bad about him, but he also said, “Oh yes, this is very important, we need to preserve this wall.” The first Commissioner who spoke was a Brooklyn Heights resident who came to the theater all the time. He said it is important that the building be preserved, and then it was all downhill from there. Landmarks was very insistent on preserving that brick wall and the columns. It was all about that wall. I spoke to Judy Stanton, who probably came to see every film we showed, and she said, “We love the cinema, but this is not about the cinema. This is about the building.”

Tom then went to Landmarks a second time about a year later, and the same thing happened. Landmarks rejected the plan. And we were all just shocked. I thought it was a done deal. Tom was going to preserve the bricks, and did everything Landmarks wanted, but it wasn’t the way Landmarks wanted it done. I went back to the cinema and talked to Amy, my manager, and I said, “You know, if I were Tom, I would just sell the building.”

BHB: What was different about Tom’s second plan from the development that was approved and being built right now?

KL: Actually, it was very similar. The only difference was that the first floor was going to be a cinema. The original plan had the cinema in the basement. But the Commissioners didn’t like the idea of a cinema in the basement and even asked, “Are there cinemas in basements?” And I really had to bite my tongue, but I did say, “You know there are no windows in cinemas, so there are a lot of cinemas in basements. Like, for example, the Paris Theater.” They still didn’t like the idea. Then the plan moved the cinema to the first floor, and they still didn’t like that.

BHB: What is your understanding of why they rejected the second plan. Was it still the issue with the columns and brick wall?

KL: Yes, that was it, but I don’t remember exactly what the problem was. I remember thinking it was completely absurd. And I also told Tom, “Listen, there’s an election coming up. Bill de Blasio will be elected and new Commissioners will be in place.” But at that point, I think Tom had enough. He just wanted to be done with it.

BHB: So, how did the new owners finally get a plan approved by Landmarks?

KL: I think there were two things. First, they had more experience doing things with Landmarks and went in with more information. Second, they had the advantage of working with new Commissioners after the election.

BHB: Was the cinema ever in the plan with the new owners?

KL: No. I spoke with them and discussed market rent and there was no way it could happen. The market rent is $12,000 a month for the new space and my lease was $5,500 a month. If Tom had kept the building, the building was already paid for. He just needed to pay for the development and he could have afforded to give me a huge break. The new owner who bought the building for seven million dollars couldn’t afford to do that.

BHB: If you could do it all over again, would you buy the cinema?

KL: That’s really an interesting question that I don’t think anyone ever asked me before. It’s difficult to say, because I absolutely loved owning the cinema and I really miss it. But it absolutely destroyed my life. I will be in debt for the rest of my life.

BHB: But the three years that you owned it were fulfilling?

KL: It really was. The first two years were great. The first year, we broke even. The second year, we made money. But the last 9 months, we lost so much money. The movies just didn’t catch on. It was that particularly brutal winter. People didn’t want to go outside. By the end, I was worried about how I was going to pay the bills all the time. The Weinstein Group took me to court and they’re the slimiest people I ever dealt with. They wanted to force me into bankruptcy. I made good-faith efforts to pay as much as I could. The other distributors wrote off the debts, but the Weinstein Group wouldn’t. Their lawyer told my lawyer that only if I filed for bankruptcy, they would write it off.

BHB: There was a lot of talk about you finding another space for the cinema. What happened?

KL: I looked for a long time. But there just was nothing out there. The landlords wanted so much money. There was one landlord who had a space in Cobble Hill and I was told that he really wanted to do business with someone local and would give me a break. I went to talk to the landlord and when he told me the number, it was laughable. It wasn’t a break at all.

BHB: There were also reports that you would reopen at the old ReBar space in Dumbo.

KL: That was another one. I went and talked to the landlord and he wanted $11,000 a month for 2,500 sq. ft. I said to him, “You know it’s a really small space. If I sold out every show and every person bought a large popcorn and soda, I still wouldn’t come close to making the rent.” I told the owner, “You’ll never get that kind of rent for this space.” The owner said, “I think I can.” I said, “The only business that could make that kind of money in this space is a meth lab.” That’s the problem. The landlords in NYC are lunatics. What’s happened to NY is sickening, and it’s only going in one direction. And people say, “Well, there will be a mid-course correction.” But it’s too late, way too late.

BHB: So where are you now and what do you see in your near future?

KL: I’m spending half of my time in NYC, and half of my time in Europe, where I can make some money. Basically, trying to get back to where I was before. Getting back to, “would I do it over again?” I wouldn’t be in debt, but I wouldn’t have had that experience. Anyone who’s been in debt will tell you it’s completely draining.

BHB: What would you say to your most loyal customers?

KL: That’s easy. I would say, “I’m very sorry I couldn’t keep it going,” and thank them for the years of support. That is one of things that I miss more than anything else, the interactions with the customers. We had so many regular customers. I looked forward to seeing them. They should know my manager Amy and I really valued them and we miss seeing them.

———-

Calls for comments to the current President of the Brooklyn Heights Association and attorney for the Weinstein Group were not returned.

Judy Stanton, former Executive Director of the BHA, provided the following statement:

“The BHA was working via the LPC (Landmarks Preservation Commission) process to preserve 70 Henry, and we opposed proposals that involved demolition of the building. The BHA supported the cinema. In our view, it was possible to retain the cinema within the original walls of the building. A nearby example of that type of preservation approach is the incorporation of the St. Ann’s Warehouse theatre within the old walls of the Tobacco Warehouse. “

Story link, more photos: http://brooklynheightsblog.com/archives/82571

ABOUT THEATRE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA: Founded by Ben Hall in 1969, the Theatre Historical Society of America (THS) celebrates, documents and promotes the architectural, cultural and social relevance of America’s historic theatres. Through its preservation of the collections in the American Theatre Architecture Archive, its signature publication Marquee™ and Conclave Theatre Tour, THS increases awareness, appreciation and scholarly study of America’s theatres.

Learn more about historic theatres in the THS American Theatre Architecture Archives and on our website at historictheatres.org

Large

Large

You must login before making a comment.

New Comment