Emelyn Stuart is proud when visitors come to Stuart Cinema & Café, her independent movie theater in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Just a few years ago, she sold her house, car and whatever other assets she could to take over a former warehouse space and transform it into a place for film-watching, performances and community get-togethers.
Stuart comes from the film and television industry. She worked there for 10 years and had also been producing and investing in film projects on the side. But she said she was surprised when exhibitors told her they were not interested in distributing her work.
Stuart said when she tried to get her faith-based film “The Turnaround” picked up for theaters, she pitched it to several distributors but kept getting turned down. The last distributor she talked to told her it just wasn’t a film the public would be interested in: “He said: ‘It’s not Tyler Perry, it’s not passionate,’” she said, still incredulous after hearing those words so many years ago. “And I walked out of there, and was like, how come this guy gets to decide the future of all these people? I mean, there’s writers, directors, there is, you know, cast and crew. There’s like all these people and this one guy gets to say, ‘No, that can’t go to theaters.’”
That was the one that broke her. Stuart said she walked out of that meeting and asked herself what she needed to do to ensure her films and those of other independent filmmakers have a chance to be seen. A friend told her she should build her own movie theater. “I said, all right—I will build one!”
Stuart Cinema & Café at 79 West Street in Brooklyn (www.stuartcinema.com) sits on a quiet road that has few retail businesses yet block after block of luxury rentals along what developers have deemed Brooklyn’s burgeoning East River Waterfront. The Stuart Cinema & Café, the first independent movie theater owned and operated by a Black Latina in NYC, is positioned to serve its new neighbors while also welcoming visitors from throughout the city. Its 50-seat theater features showings of the latest Hollywood film releases. There are special discounted film screenings for parents and children on Wednesdays. And the theater’s café features soups, sandwiches, empanadas made according to the recipe of Emelyn’s mother Maria, and pastries and cupcakes from Harlem-based Fresh Taste Bakery. Patrons are encouraged to eat their food in the theater while watching films.
As chief executive officer of Stuart Cinema & Café, Stuart has also made the theater a go-to place for smaller film distributors, film festivals are shown at the theater, and the location has a small stage so that musicians can rent the space and put on performances. At the height of COVID-19, Stuart made the theater accessible for families who could not travel to attend the funerals of loved ones but were able to come together and watch a livestream of the event at Stuart Cinema & Café.
Stuart is also currently working on the opening of a second, three-screen theater in her childhood neighborhood of Sunset Park. She said she remembers having to always get on a bus and traveling to white neighborhoods to see films when she was a child, now she’s building what will be the area’s first movie theater in 30 years. The Stuart Cinema multiplex in Sunset Park will have a full restaurant and bookstore. “The place I’m opening is on the water in Sunset Park. I’m going to be the first tenant in a new development, so I’ll be their biggest tenant on the ground floor, it’s so exciting,” she said. “We are going to have three screens. We have one that’s going to be a themed screen. That’ll have an indoor/outdoor feel, so you’ll feel like you’re outside but you’ll be inside and there’ll be trees and grass.
“My vision is not to have an AMC or Regal,” she said, referencing AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas, the first and second largest movie theater chains in the world. “I would like to have a place where I would like to watch a movie. And there are just certain things that I want.”