Nicolaou owns Cinemart Cinemas at 106-03 Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills, the city’s longest independently owned theater since its opening in 1927. He is also the owner of the Alpine Theatre in Bay Ridge and Cinema Village in Manhattan.
In 2015, Cinemart nearly closed. This columnist helped Nicolaou organize a preservation campaign to attract audiences, and thousands of ticket were sold for Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.”
It sent a strong message to Hollywood to license more first-run films to independent theaters, since large corporate-owned threaters often receive first priority. Now first-run films routinely appear on the Cinemart marquee.
In recent years, Nicolaou invested hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment upgrades, leather recliners, and renovations to the lobby and concessions.
Nicolaou’s perseverance caught the attention of director and producer Abel Ferrara, the man behind the movies “King of New York” and “Bad Lieutenant,” who features him in “The Projectionist.”
The documentary debuted earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, landing a spot on the “15 Must-See Movies” list. On May 6, it was screened at the Museum of Modern Art to a sold-out crowd.
“He made smart choices on how he could survive in a tremendously difficult business,” said MoMA audience member Adriana Barden. “He kept stressing that he just wants his communities to know there is a place for all generations to come and enjoy the cinema.”
Ferrara first met Nicolaou in Greece.
“We were in an idyllic Greek island where big directors like me go when someone invites them and I don’t have to pay, and then I met him of all people,” said Ferrara to laughs from the audience.
Nicolaou emigrated from Cyprus to New York City in 1970 when he was just 12 years old. He told the audience he followed in the footsteps of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century, who opened Nickelodeons and later founded many of today’s Hollywood studios.
“Such as the four founding Warner Brothers, who immigrated as young children from Poland, first showing films in the mining towns of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Spyros Skouras, a Greek-American motion picture pioneer, was 20th Century Fox’s president and responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s big break.”
As the documentary shows, Nicolaou is dedicated to purchasing theaters to operate them as theaters, not as real estate investments.
“Each time a lease runs out, like the D.W. Griffith on Manhattan’s East Side or Columbia Cinema on the West Side, for yet another pharmacy or supermarket, it hurts my soul,” he said. “I want to keep neighborhood theaters alive. By turning the experience over to large corporations, New Yorkers are losing something important.”
His patrons realize Nicolaou’s commitment to customer service, which is a key ingredient to his survival.
“Life can be what you dream, especially in New York,” he said. “I keep very affordable prices in neighborhood theaters because I want kids to come to the movies and be touched the way that I was touched.”