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

Emlyn Stewart knew she wanted her theater list to be different. Empanadas, soups, hummus salad rolls, and cupcakes are sold at the café.

Emlyn Stewart

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Emlyn Stewart

Emlyn Stewart knew she wanted her theater list to be different. Empanadas, soups, hummus salad rolls, and cupcakes are sold at the café.

Emlyn Stewart

Owner of Stuart Cinema & Cafe Emelyn Stuart is a solutions-oriented person. If there is a problem, she says there must be a way to fix it. That’s what prompted her to start her first Black Latina-owned movie theater in New York — and why she’s now preparing to build a complex on another site.

Having produced films for a decade, Stewart was frustrated with the distribution hurdle. She said that the high-ranking officials who would decide on her projects do not have an audience, like the “gatekeeper” she met while trying to get her movie the shift in theatres.

“I remember walking out there and thinking, That’s it. So my whole investment, the investment of all these people, the work of all these writers and directors and actors, is void. Because this one guy in this place made this decision, why would he decide that?” . “I said, I’m going to build my own movie theater, and I’m going to decide what people should watch.”

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

“The electrics, the floors, the carpets, the walls—everything I built from scratch,” she recalls. “I could have bought a theater that had already been built and was out of business and was vacant. But I didn’t want to […] Because I’m basically buying someone else’s dream, right? “

Stewart struggled to get a loan, and the investors who had backed her previous films weren’t interested in contributing. So she liquidated her assets—houses and cars—and paid for everything in cash.

Stewart, who is Dominican, had a vision for her theater to be different. She wanted to be able to eat empanadas, lamb burger, and tres leches cake. She said, “I like to have dinner, and I don’t want to eat hot dogs.”

Contractors and architects were skeptical, saying her building plans would not work in a theater and that this would be “different.”

“Yeah, that’s the whole point,” she said.

She explained that the project was a huge learning process. She had to learn how to get movies from the studios and how to serve food. But she managed to tell people what Stewart was doing in cinema.

Emelyn Stuart started Ocktober 10 years ago because she felt she could provide what filmmakers needed from festivals.

Emlyn Stewart

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Emlyn Stewart

Emelyn Stuart started Ocktober 10 years ago because she felt she could provide what filmmakers needed from festivals.

Emlyn Stewart

The 50-seat theater does more than show films in both English and Spanish. It has seen five film festivals, including Stewart’s own Oktoberfest. It also hosts church services, meditations, committees, meetings, video game sessions, and comedy shows.

Now, Stewart said her single screen in Stewart Cinemas has reached its limit. There is a waiting list for space, so I decided to make a pool.

“I accomplished the things I wanted to do with space,” she said. “I’m willing to expand and do it, you know, four times — because I go from one screen to three screens, from one location to two locations, from a coffee shop to a full restaurant, and I even include a library, because I love books.”

She’s working on the new project building in the neighborhood she grew up in in Sunset Park.

“When I was looking to open the transmission complex, I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I build it in my childhood neighborhood?'” She said. “They haven’t had a movie theater in over 30 years in this neighborhood, and most of them are Latino.”

As much as she is a business owner, Stewart said she is a community leader, and she is a servant at heart.

“I’m a black Latina. I’m a woman, and I’m also a veteran,” she said. “Like, I can’t be a minority anymore. But I feel in a lot of ways, it’s transparent. And that’s what I want, right? Yeah, I’m a black-owned business.” And yes, I’m Latino. And yes, I’m a veteran, and all that stuff. But most importantly, it’s a job you enjoy coming to.”

During the Black History Month series at Stewart Cinemas, she said she was honored that the theater was filled with white people there watching great films like Malcolm X.

“I love the fact that despite the fact that I’m a black-owned business in a white neighborhood, people in the neighborhood are embracing this business because of the service we provide,” she said.

On Wednesdays, movies are $8 and popcorn is $3, because she feels everyone should be able to watch movies on the big screen. There are also “Mama and Me” movies especially for young children who may be noisy while watching other movies. Stewart came up with a way to capture the elders of the community to come to the stage for their own shows.

The number of people going to the movies has decreased, Stewart said, especially since COVID. If there are no other sources of income built into the business such as providing affordable catering services, it will be difficult.

During the pandemic, Stuart Cinema & Cafe has updated its filtration system and hand sanitizers. Make computers publicly available for people to file for unemployment. People can also rent the stage to watch the funerals and burials of their loved ones via live broadcast.

She recounted, “There was no other place where people could meet so safely. And so I didn’t charge people. I said, whatever you can afford.” “Some people can only afford $50. Other people can afford $5,000.”

Stuart Cinema also installed DVD players in the homes of the elderly, and delivered DVDs to keep them connected to the movies.

The companies ended up making more money in 2020 than the previous year.

“Nothing prepares you for success,” Stewart said. Growing up without a lot of money and with English as a second language, Stewart said she felt like she didn’t have everything she needed to be successful, but she could work hard.

“I definitely feel a sense of responsibility. Because I feel like if I fail, it won’t be like, ‘I failed, Emelyn, I feel like it’s going to be like Latinos and blacks and small businesses.'” […] And veterans because I unchecked many boxes. “Sometimes I have to check myself in and say, ‘You know what, you’re going to make mistakes.'”

There are moments when Stewart remembers why she created the theatre. You remember when a program brought a group of kindergarten-aged kids from an underrepresented neighborhood. For some children, it was their first time in the cinema.

“And they were so happy,” she said, remembering what it felt like to watch them. “I was like, ‘Wow, this — that’s what it is.'” These are the experiences they get. “

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