To most observers, the closure of two movie screening rooms that shared a block near Times Square with a strip club and a souvenir boutique might seem like just another symptom of a changing neighborhood. But for film critics in New York, the shuttering of Magno Review 1 and 2, which will show their last movies today after 31 years in operation, is significant.
David Friedman, the executive vice president of Magno Sound Inc., who runs the company with his brother, Bob Friedman, the president, attributed the closure primarily to the cost of rent; Magno is not renewing its lease, effective July 1.
In these rooms and others sprinkled in mostly anonymous buildings around the city, critics and filmmakers would watch movies days, weeks and even months before their release, getting a jump on deadlines and Oscar contenders. (Major blockbusters tend to get advance screenings in regular commercial theaters.) Never the classiest screening rooms — others have cozier chairs and less sound bleed from neighboring spaces — Magno was still among the mostly widely used.
But there’s been a recent drop in screenings, David Friedman pointed out, both for critics and awards voters, due to changing technologies, viewing habits and the economics of both movies and journalism. “The screening business itself is slipping a bit because of the alternative methods of allowing critics to screen films,” he said, adding, “When I speak with the marketing people, the publicity companies, they seem to blame it on links quite a bit,” Mr. Friedman said. He sees a younger generation of critics who seem more comfortable with watching movies on their computers.
While hand wringing when beloved movie theaters close is nothing new, the living memory of private screening rooms isn’t as long. Each screening room has its own personality, and some even have unspoken rules. In Chicago, where I spent seven years, Roger Ebert’s seat was sacred, a spot we knew to avoid without asking.
Without a cinematreasures.org — the crowdsourced site about bygone movie theaters — for lost screening rooms, a recent history would have to include the Broadway Screening Room, which closed around 2013, in the Brill Building, famous for its association with the music industry. Universal’s screening room, which closed in 2015, now seems notable mainly for its location, the beleaguered Kushner Companies site 666 Fifth Avenue.
The Magno rooms, located at 729 Seventh Avenue, were known as affordable options for less well-heeled distributors, and their closure, said the publicist Emma Griffiths, will primarily affect smaller films. It is difficult to fathom the number of independent features and issues documentaries that have screened there over the years. Mr. Friedman estimated that the rooms — the 65-seat Review 1 and the 38-seat Review 2 — have held tens of thousands of screenings since opening in 1987.
He emphasized that Magno, which was founded by the Friedmans’ father, Ralph Friedman, in 1950 as a postproduction studio for sound, isn’t going out of business. It will continue to do postproduction work at a new location on East 32nd Street.
Even so, this represents a major shift for a company that has shown movies in New York for about five decades, with as many as four rooms in operation at any one time, screening movies not only for journalists but also for filmmakers viewing dailies.
According to Jan Stuart’s book “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece,” Pauline Kael’s legendary early screening of “Nashville” took place at a Magno room. That’s when she wrote a rave review based on an unfinished cut that was significantly longer than the final release, earning her the ire of colleagues. (Mr. Friedman believes that screening probably occurred at 1350 Sixth Avenue, in a space currently operated by Dolby.)
This isn’t the company’s first closure: Review 1 and 2 had sister rooms, Magno Preview 4 and 9 — Preview, not Review, and named for the floors they were on — a block away at 1600 Broadway. That building, once an enclave of film companies, is now home to M&M’s World and condominiums.
For anyone who spends a certain amount of time in these spaces, even the shabbiest screening rooms acquire a certain luster. Review 1 is where I saw my first screening-room assignment in college (the Macbeth riff “Scotland, Pa.”). Review 2 is where I watched “Never Again,” starring Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambor, the first movie I reviewed for The Village Voice.
If you want a taste of the screening room experience, try the Roxy Cinema Tribeca, the former Tribeca Grand Screening Room, which opened to the general public last year and has undergone a renovation that gave it a retro motif. It’s a place to see movies in style. But without Magno’s vexing sight lines or loud prescreening chatter from colleagues, it’s hardly the full experience.
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