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New York's first Black Latina-owned movie theater is ready to grow, owner says

Emelyn Stuart knew she wanted her theater's menu to be different. Empanadas, soup, chickpea salad wraps and cupcakes are all sold in the cafe.
Emelyn Stuart
Emelyn Stuart knew she wanted her theater's menu to be different. Empanadas, soup, chickpea salad wraps and cupcakes are all sold in the cafe.

Stuart Cinema & Cafe owner Emelyn Stuart is a solution-oriented person. If there's a problem, she says there has to be a way to fix it. That's what led her to start the first Black Latina-owned movie theater in New York – and why she's now preparing to build a multiplex in another location.

Having produced films for a decade, Stuart was frustrated with the obstacle of getting distribution. She said the higher-ups who would decide her projects had no audience, like when she met with a "gatekeeper" while trying to get her movie The Turnaround into theaters.

"I remember walking out of there and thinking, so that's it. So my entire investment, the investment of all these people, the work of all these writers, directors, actors, is void. Because this one guy in this one place made this decision, why does he get to decide that?" she said. "I said, I'm going to build my own movie theater, and I will decide what people should watch.'"

She found a warehouse in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint that had trucks parked in it, signed the lease in April of 2018, built her theater from scratch and opened by Sept. 1 that same year.

"The electricity, the floor, the carpeting, the walls – everything I built from scratch," she recalled. "I could have bought a theater that was already built that was going out of business that was vacant. But I didn't want that [...] Because I'm essentially buying somebody else's dream, right?"

Stuart struggled to get a loan, and investors who had supported her past films weren't interested in contributing. So she liquidated her assets – houses, cars, she said – and paid for everything with cash.

Stuart, who is Dominican, had a vision for her theater to be different. She wanted to be able to eat empanadas, a lamb burger and tres leches cake. "I like to eat dinner, I don't want to have a hot dog," she said.

Her contractors and architect were doubtful, saying her building plans wouldn't work for a theater and this was going to be "different."

"Yeah, that's the point," she said.

The project was a massive learning process, she explained. She had to learn how to get movies from studios and how to serve food. But she could tell people liked what Stuart Cinema was doing.

Emelyn Stuart started Ocktober Festival 10 years ago because she felt she could offer what filmmakers need from festivals.
/ Emelyn Stuart
/
Emelyn Stuart
Emelyn Stuart started Ocktober Festival 10 years ago because she felt she could offer what filmmakers need from festivals.

The 50-seat theater does more than just show movies in English and Spanish. It has seen five film festivals, including Stuart's own Ocktober Film Festival. It also hosts church services, meditations, panels, meetings, video game sessions and comedy shows.

Now, Stuart said her single screen at Stuart Cinema is maxed out. There's a waitlist for the space, so she's decided to build a multiplex.

"I've accomplished the things I wanted to accomplish with the space," she said. "I'm ready to expand and do it, you know, four times over – because I'm going from one screen to three screens, one location to two locations, a cafe to a full restaurant, and I'm even including a bookstore, because I love books."

She's working to build the new project in the neighborhood where she grew up in Sunset Park.

"When I was looking to open the multiplex, I thought, 'Well, why not build it in my childhood neighborhood?" she said. "They haven't had a movie theater in over 30 years in that neighborhood, and it's predominantly Latinos."

Stuart said that as much as she's a business owner, she's a community leader, and she's a servant at heart.

"I'm Black-Latina. I'm a woman, I'm also a veteran," she said "Like, I can't be any more of a minority. But I feel like in many ways, it's transparent. And that's what I want, right? Yes, I'm a Black owned business. And yes, I'm Latina. And yes, I'm a veteran, and all these things. But most importantly, it's a business that you enjoy coming to."

During Stuart Cinema's Black history month series, she said she was honored that the theater was filled with white people there to see great films like Malcolm X.

"I love the fact that despite the fact that I am a Black-owned business in a white neighborhood, the people in the neighborhood embrace the business because of the service that we provide," she said.

On Wednesdays, movies are $8 and popcorn is $3, because she feels everyone should have access to watch movies on the big screen. There are also special "mommy and me" movies for young kids who might be disruptive during other movies. Stuart worked out a way to pick up seniors in the community to come to the theater for their own screenings.

Especially since COVID, Stuart said, the number of people going to the movies has decreased. If there weren't other sources of income built into the business, like offering affordable catering services, it would be struggling.

During the pandemic, Stuart Cinema & Cafe upgraded its filtration system and hand sanitizers. It made computers publicly available for people to file for unemployment. People could also rent the theater to watch their loved ones' funerals and burials via livestream.

"There was nowhere else where people could safely get together like that. And so I didn't charge people. I said, whatever you can afford," she recounted. "Some people can only afford $50. Other people could afford $5,000."

Stuart Cinema also hooked up DVD players in the homes of senior citizens, and dropped off DVDs to keep them connected to movies.

The businesses ended up making more in 2020 than the year before.

"Nothing prepares you for success," Stuart said. Growing up without a lot of money and with English as her second language, Stuart said she felt she didn't have everything needed to be successful, but she could work hard.

"I certainly feel a sense of responsibility. Because I feel like if I fail, it's not going to be like, 'Oh Emelyn failed, I feel it's going to be like Latinos and Blacks and small businesses [...] and veterans because I check off so many boxes," she said. "Sometimes I have to just check myself and say, 'You know what, you're going to make mistakes.'"

There are moments that remind Stuart why she created the theater. She recalled when a program brought in a group of kindergarten-age children from an underrepresented neighborhood. For some kids, it was their first time ever in a movie theater.

"And they were so happy," she said, remembering what it felt like to watch them. "I was just like, 'Wow, this is – this is what it is. It's these experiences that they get to have."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Halisia Hubbard
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