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'Reel' intimacy

Manlius Art Cinema provides an intimate, independent alternative to traditional movie theaters.

If you’re heading to the Manlius Art Cinema for showtime, don’t expect to find the crowded parking lot and long lines you’re accustomed to at the local Regal Theater. In fact, you could drive right by the small theater because it’s subtly nestled between a local pottery shop and an embroidery store. Once inside, you may even need to run out to an ATM because of the cash-only policy (in place because credit card fees would drive the ticket prices up). 

Photo: Nathan Mattise
Owner Nat Tobin prepares the projector for the final showing of Food, Inc.

The Manlius Art Cinema, a locally owned, independent movie theater, provides a comfortable alternative to traditional, commercial theaters.  You won’t arrive early to watch a never-ending stream of previews for the fall’s next big-budget blockbusters before the showing of a foreign film, documentary, or another first-run narrowly distributed film. 

Instead, you may get a personal introduction to the film from owner Nat Tobin.

“If there are enough people in the audience, I’ll go out and introduce the film because it’s kind of embarrassing to stand in front of two people and give a speech,” Tobin said.“But there’s such an instantaneous reaction of contact between the audience and myself, it gives me a way to interact and let them know something perhaps they didn’t know.”

That’s the intimacy and personal touch Tobin tries to create every night at the theater, which he calls his “second home.” Tobin has been the sole proprietor of Manlius Art Cinema since 1992 and he continues to maintain the DIY, arts-driven approach that made him first take notice of the place back when he moved to the area in the 1980s. His ownership is actually just the most recent chapter in the theater’s history, which dates back to 1918 and is the oldest independent cinema in Onondaga County.

“There are many films that would’ve never come to Syracuse if not for this theater, and that was a history or tradition I picked when I took over,” Tobin said. “It had been an independent art theater and I continued with it because I like that area of the film business.”

Tobin’s experience in the industry comes from a previous career in movie advertising that included a lengthy period with United Artists. Today, he does everything on show nights, from cleaning the sidewalk to making the popcorn to threading the projector. He also personally selects the films he wishes to show based on their buzz, cultural importance and, sometimes, personal preference.

“There are films for which I remember sitting here in the theater watching for 90 minutes thinking, ‘This is as good as being in an art museum,’” Tobin said.  “I’ve been really lucky that the number of films I’ve been ashamed to show I can name on one hand. And don’t ask me to name them.”

It’s hard to ignore the amount of care that goes into any experience at the Manlius Art Cinema — from personal greetings at the front entrance to homemade baked goods at the concession stand. It’s an atmosphere that makes visitors feel welcome. Whether a first-time patron or a familiar regular, you can't help but notice there's something different about the place.

“It’s nice to support an independent business and they seem to play different movies here,” said Kari Darling, visiting the theater for her second time while on a date with boyfriend and Syracuse University graduate student Andy Basner. “I’ll hear about a movie and really want to see it, and this is the only place that’s playing it.”

Behind the scenes at the Manlius Art Cinema

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