Movie Times

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I f you’re among the first to arrive for a movie at the Ciné 4, you take maybe 10 or 11 steps from your car to the main door. If you arrive later–or even late–it may be 20 steps. The parking lot is blockbuster-ready—6 or 7 rows deep—but not even Alan Soffer, who used to change the movie titles on the sign at the opposite end, has to walk the whole depth anymore, as that sign is now digital.

The ticket counter is just inside, at the end of a short velvet-roped promenade. You may be stopped in your tracks by the titles above the counter (which are still analog), undecided among four movies scheduled to begin at the same time, while Stuart Soffer, the owner and Alan’s older brother, watches you from behind the counter with a desk sergeant’s deadpan patience. In all likelihood, he’s seen all four, so he can tell you what’s good. You can then do the second transaction, for concessions, on the adjacent side of the same counter, so the change from your first transaction effectively jumps from one Ciné 4 cash register to another in about 30 seconds. Skipping the concessions is a bad idea, according to Alan. “We got the best popcorn. Anywhere. Everybody says so. Sometimes people just stop and buy popcorn. Sometimes people come in, buy a medium popcorn on the way in and a large popcorn on the way out.” So now your hands are full, but it’s just 10 or 20 more steps to your seat, regardless of which movie you picked.

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If you’re a moviegoer above a certain age, you may remember this as the experience you grew up with. The movie theater of Star Wars and early Spielberg was a simple concrete box with two to four auditoriums which you entered from a central popcorn-scented hub. If you had to go to the bathroom while Indiana Jones was being thrown out of the speeding Nazi truck, you would be back in plenty of time to see him swing back in. The multiplexes later supplanted the boxes, offering more movies along ever-longer corridors, so it would be tempting to regard the Ciné 4 as retro. But “retro” describes newer things made to feel older, while the Ciné is simply authentic.

Joseph Soffer, Stuart and Alan’s father, opened the Ciné on May 12, 1971, after first buying the property. According to Alan, who began working there with Stuart soon afterward, “There was nothing but an old house on a hill. He just bought it on speculation because he was a bit of an entrepreneur. He went through lots of ideas and he decided on a movie theater.” To independently operate a theater in the early ’70s was to operate a mainstream theater. “There were lots of single-screen theaters in the area. There was one triple in Orange when we first opened. And we were a twin. Two auditoriums.” The brothers were away at college when Star Wars came out and changed the cinematic landscape, but Alan is certain the Ciné showed it because it was entirely natural for them to have done so. A small number of screens didn’t correlate with a niche movie selection the way it does now.

In the mid-’80s, the Soffers split each of their original auditoriums in two—adding walls down the middle—and the Cine 1-2 became the Cine 1-2-3-4. (When they replaced the outdoor sign in 2006, it became the Ciné 4.) “It was the way the industry was going. Smaller auditoriums and more screens. Fewer empty seats.” The rooms are otherwise essentially unchanged. The chairs are the familiar skewer style, joined at the arm, with seats that fold up until the weight of your posterior brings them back down. The Soffers have replaced the chairs over the years without attempting to compete with the reclining loungers you can now reserve at some multiplexes. The very noteworthy exception is the addition of built-in cup holders, which make you forget how you ever secured your giant beverages before them. Also, the projectors are digital, per the industry standard. There are otherwise no first class cabin contrivances to distract you from the movie magic you came for. The audio sprouts from speakers behind the screen, and the screen itself is sized for the smallish theater, but the experience is still immersive.

The unfussiness of going to see movies at the Ciné is mirrored in its operation. As customers wandered in one evening, Alan Soffer stood behind the counter (where Stuart sits on roughly alternating days) with the dapper formality of a neighborhood pharmacist. He wore a sweater and a tie. “Good evening,” he would say to new arrivals, making helpful small talk. He pointed out that one of the offerings that night, Colette, is a biopic, but so is another: the new Robert Redford movie, The Old Man & the Gun, which is also said to be Redford’s last. Somebody points out that Clint Eastwood said that about his last movie, and Alan mentions that Clint is about to be in another one. Customers gradually adjourn to their seats. At 7:30 on the nose, Alan disappears behind a door in back of the lobby to dash upstairs and turn on the projectors. After a minute, he reemerges and closes each set of auditorium doors, one by one. From the vantage of the newly silenced lobby, it feels like he’s tucking the customers in for a two-hour nap.

How many times he must have done this. He describes readying moviegoers for the movie and vice versa with a verbal shrug. “Sometimes I sell tickets. Sometimes I sell popcorn. Sometimes I clean. Sometimes I stand by the door and take tickets and look good—or not. I do whatever’s necessary.” But the establishment of a gentle routine over long years is a fragile achievement. The New Haven Register’s past coverage of the Ciné captures a period when it could have ended. In 1989, Joseph Soffer put the property and the building up for sale. This was a year after Showcase Cinemas extended their reach from Milford and Orange to North Haven, just a few exits north on Route 91. Film studios were also demanding a greater share of every admission ticket sold for movies like the the then-just-released Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But four years later, the Soffers were still the owners of the Ciné and had filed a lawsuit against the corporate owners of the Showcase as well as 10 film distributors for conspiring to monopolize access to the commercial releases. As it happens, any ruling, regardless of whom it favored, would have been rendered moot in the long term; Showcase withdrew from the area in the late aughts.

The landscape is still dominated by theater chains, but the Ciné has over time nurtured a kind of synergy between its customers, its movie selection and its layout. As Stuart Soffer explained to the Register in 2007, “Seniors like it that there are no [stairs], reasonable prices, and there aren’t masses of kids. They don’t want to get hit in the head with a frozen Milky Way. They’ll get a good picture and it’ll be quiet.” More than a decade later, Alan concurs, pointing out that the kind of films they select with their booking agent—“biopics, documentaries, foreign films, stuff that’s more select”—appeals to a mature audience. “We’re a true independent,” he says, and while the Soffers will probably never show another Star Wars movie, their customer base isn’t expecting them to.

Ciné 4
371 Middletown Ave, New Haven (map)
Typical showtimes: Monday-Thursday 7:30pm, Friday 5:10pm & 7:50pm, Saturday-Sunday 11:50pm, 2:30pm, 5:10pm, 7:50pm
(203) 776-5546
Admission: $9.50 regular, $7 seniors (cash only)

Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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David Zukowski got his start writing for the Arts & Culture section of The Telegraph in southern New Hampshire while attending graduate courses in Albany, New York. He doesn't do that kind of driving anymore, but returns to New Hampshire often to climb mountains.

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