In 2016, when the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema caught ablaze and suffered a significant amount of damage, it was a devastating blow for the community. Nearly five years after that tragedy, the gorgeously renovated Cinema will celebrate its grand reopening over Memorial Day weekend.
The Cinema held a soft opening earlier in May and the East End has been abuzz about the new space ever since. “I think just literally people who came in, I don’t think they gave a damn what we were showing on screen, to be really honest. I think they were just happy to be able to come out and go into a movie theater and see something on a big screen,” James Hook, Sag Harbor Cinema Executive Director, told us about the first groups of film-goers. “We forget how powerful an experience a movie is. It reminds me of when you watch a movie at home, as we’ve all been doing, we think we’re seeing the movie, which is sort of the equivalent of when we go to the zoo and we look at a lion in a cage. We think we’re seeing a lion. And then if you go and see a lion on the plains of the Serengeti, you realize I’ve never seen a lion before, like I’ve seen something that is an approximation of a lion, but it’s really not a lion.”
The Cinema’s grand opening weekend, Thursday, May 27 through Monday, May 31, will feature a wide variety of programming – from recently released blockbusters (A Quiet Place Part II) to retrospectives (The Hegedus/Pennebaker Retrospective + GE Smith: Don’t Look Back) to Hollywood classics restored by the Museum of Modern Art (Nothing Sacred, William Wellman) to kids and family matinees (Alice in Wonderland) to Tarantino in 35mm (Pulp Fiction) – and much more.
One of the major upgrades is the theater’s new sound system. “We have what’s called a Dolby Atmos system, which if you look around, there’s 53 speakers, each of which is isolated in its own little Sonic box, and they’re all calibrated by the Dolby Corporation so that you can hear things… It’s even more than a surround sound system. It’s like they can pinpoint a sound over there,” Hook explained.
The second to largest theater will pay homage to classic cinema. “The reason we have a 35 millimeter projection is mostly because there’s still films in archives and in private collections that you can’t see anywhere else,” Hook relayed. “It’s a luxury to have this 35, it’s a luxury of cinematic love.”
He added, “The aspect ratio that really looks the best in this room is the old Hollywood, the golden 4:3 ratio, it’s what they call it. Those black and white movies on this screen just look tremendous. And we can’t wait to do the kinds of films that resuscitate the great history of cinema.”
The Cinema’s intimate green room will serve as a community meeting space. “This room is a place where students from Pierson High School will watch films, when the fire department gets a new fire machine, and they need to have a collective group of people watch a movie to figure out how to use it, they will come here,” he said. “OLA had their board retreat in here, they watched a short film, and then they went upstairs and they did a whole bunch of work there. It’s a room that we will rent out, but also we will grant it out through a community access program.”
Nearly a month in and Sag Harbor Cinema already has a unique club taking advance of that space. “There’s a great group we have, it’s called The Secret Movie Society. I can’t tell you their names, but it’s a collection of kids who are all ranging in age from 10 to about 13. And there’s no grown ups involved. They basically get together and they watch old films,” Hook explained. “I was like, Listen, as long as you refuse to ever let a grown up in, you can use this space as to your heart’s content. I was just so tickled by that. That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to support. So they watch old movies, and they talk about them. They’re sort of a collection of young cinephiles and we allow them to watch films in this room.”
Two exciting Cinema spaces will make their debut during opening week: the gallery and third floor.
The gallery will showcase an exhibit of Hegedus-Pennebaker’s pioneering 16mm filmmaking equipment, some of which was utilized while making Don’t Look Back, and a series of frame enlargements from the Bob Dylan documentary. The gallery will officially open on Friday, May 28 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Advance registration is suggested and there is no fee to attend. Additionally, on Saturday, May 29, Little Animation Studios will present a Pop-Up Stop Motion Station, a workshop aimed at kids 12 and under, from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. There will be timed entry with advanced registration – and no fee to attend.
“One of our missions is to sort of preserve the past, present and future of the film going experience. But really, it’s also very much about making sure that people come in and experience the movie as a group in collective – because that’s what we need,” Hook told us. “In fact, if you are a high school student in 12th grade or below, you can join our Cinema for 20 bucks. If you join our cinema for $20, on Monday through Thursday, you can come and see a movie for $5. It’s a screaming good deal. The reason that it is such a screaming good deal is because we’re very conscious of the fact that we have to give birth to the next generation of filmmakers or they’re gonna die out.”
The third floor features a green room, sky-level members’ lounge and epic outdoor terrace. “The third floor is dedicated to community uses. So this is our members’ floor, which means that if you are a member of the organization, or if you have seen a film, you’re welcome to come and use this floor. If anybody is a member and they want to buy a cup of coffee and spend a few hours working on a screenplay, they’re welcome to come up here. I hope that in the fall when COVID is abated, students after school will be able to come up here and spend a few hours playing ping pong. We will have things like dinner and a movie that go on on this floor, we’ll have all kinds of uses for it. One of the funnest parts of this place is this beautiful members’ room with this outdoor deck.”
Throughout the pandemic, Sag Harbor Cinema held several virtual screenings with directors. Hook plans to continue that, but eventually wants to welcome the filmmakers to the theater. “I’m really hopeful that we will be able to even have directors come and talk. We’ll continue doing a lot of contextual stuff. I hope that we can finally transition away from this people showing up on Zooms to actually having people showing up in the flesh for real, because that would be a very exciting thing for us to do.”
As for what Hook personally would love to see on the Cinema screen, that would be a 007 appearance in Sag Harbor – and maybe even a passion project of his own. “I really, really hope that when James Bond comes out, we get to play it at our cinema. I made a film that’s on 35 millimeter. It’s the only movie that the playwright August Wilson was ever in. It’s called The Naked Proof. And I never had enough money to make a very good quality video transfer,” he shared. “So I really only have it on 35 millimeter film. And I’m really excited to see that movie someday – and whether it becomes a tradition where I do it on my birthday, and members get to come for free, but that is one movie I’m really excited to see. In the fall, we’ll have a weekday matinee series that shows all black and white films.”
Sag Harbor Cinema is located at 90 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit sagharborcinema.org.