For years, people in and around Greenport voiced a desire to see the local movie theater open in winter, but there were always several factors that prevented it from happening.
First and foremost, significant renovations needed to be completed to heat the building in the cold months. It would also take someone willing to operate the theater and to take on the expenses associated with keeping it running beyond summer.
Theater owner Josh Sapan, the CEO of AMC Networks who bought the theater in 2004 and opened it for the busy months as more of a passion project than a moneymaker, told The Suffolk Times in 2017 that it’s tough to make ends meet even when Greenport is booming.
So every time the idea of opening the theater for winter came up in recent years, the fantasy soon wore off.
That is until this past winter when seemingly out of nowhere one local couple with the vision to reopen the theater for a series of winter screenings and the drive to meet each of the challenges turned the community’s desire into a reality.
For their determination and generosity in creating a family-friendly activity that brings culture to the village at a time of year when locals and visitors have to search harder for entertainment, Tony Spiridakis and Lisa Gillooly, founders of the Manhattan Film Institute’s Winter Film Series, are the 2019 Northforker People of the Year.
Spiridakis said he first approached Sapan — who he knows through screenings of MFI films hosted at the theater each summer — in September 2018 about fixing a broken boiler system that enabled them to heat the theater in winter, which they did at their own expense. This year they replaced oil tanks at the site.
“The idea of having the Greenport movie theater during the winter has been a fun pipe dream for years,” he told us in 2018.
Each Saturday from January to May, the theater is reopened for free screenings of acclaimed and classic films presented by MFI, a summer film workshop the couple founded in 2012. To call the series, which kicked off a second season last weekend and resumes Jan. 11, a labor of love for Spiridakis, an actor and filmmaker, and Gillooly, a real estate agent, would probably be an understatement. It is truly hard work as they, with the help of a handful of MFI associates and friends, oversee every aspect of the operation. They pick up the movies, update the marquee, greet people at the door, make the popcorn and screen the film.
After everyone filed out of last weekend’s screenings of “Home Alone” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” they could be seen sweeping up popcorn from the floor.
Village Trustee Mary Bess Phillips said someone like Spiridakis and Gillooly are exactly what was missing during past efforts to open the theater.
“There needed to be someone on top of it,” she said. “For them to take that on shows a great commitment to their community.”
Local resident Luchi Masliah said she’s enjoyed the series, noting how much charm the small 1930s theater has and the efforts by MFI to curate a great lineup.
“It was so great to be in the theater packed with children watching ‘Home Alone,’ ” she said this week. “We were all cheering, laughing and celebrating. Everyone should support and enjoy this effort and keep it going.”
Guests are asked to make an optional donation and local businesses have partnered to have their advertisements on screen during pre-roll and to provide gift cards for people who make donations over $20. The hope is that the guests will then spill into local bars and restaurants for a full night out on the North Fork.
This winter’s lineup of 42 films includes Oscar winners ranging from “Sunset Blvd.” to “Jerry Maguire,” modern cult favorites like “Big Night” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and classics like “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Each evening includes both a family friendly option and a more mature selection. For many filmgoers it’s the first chance to see some of their favorites on a big screen. For everyone who attends, it’s an opportunity for a night out in Greenport during a quiet time of year.
When asked if he had any hesitation keeping the series going this year, Spiridakis made it clear that never could have happened.
“We were full or mostly full every week last year,” he said. “The people spoke and there’s no way they would allow us to not do it again.”
The winners of Times Review Media Group’s People of the Year Awards are honored at a special ceremony each March.
2016 — Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks
2018 — Brent Pelton, American Beech