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Living in a cinema’s paradise

The best independent movie theaters in Philadelphia

6 minute read
A movie theater in the middle of a small town street, shops on the block. Hiway is spelled out on the theater billboard
The Hiway Theater is a staple for cinema in the Philly area. (Photo courtesy of Renew Theaters.)

Between the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on creative industries and the rise of streaming behemoths, film lovers have long feared the permanent closure of their local movie theaters—particularly, beloved independent venues. Philadelphia has its own cadre of incredible independent theaters that have served their communities by providing access to a roster of diverse films to which they might not otherwise be exposed. This list is a celebration of the venues and organizations dedicated to preserving this art form and sharing it as a cultural resource within our city, from the newly established cultural preservation projects to the timeless gems of Philly’s film history. In no particular order, here are some of Philadelphia’s best independent movie theaters to visit and support.

The Landmark Ritz Five: Old City on Walnut

Originally founded in 1976 by independent cinema leader Ramon L. Posel, the Ritz Five could be considered responsible for completely reviving the Philadelphia arthouse and independent film scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to the Ritz Five’s opening, Philadelphians looking for arthouse cinema would have to travel to New York for a screening. However, Posel, who personally programmed the films at the Ritz Five, quickly developed an audience in Philly that cemented his theater as the backbone of the local arthouse scene. The theater became a hub for celebrating both international and local filmmakers; in fact, M. Night Shyamalan’s first feature-length film Praying with Anger made its world premiere at the Ritz Five in 1992.

The Ritz isn't independent now, but when Landmark Theatres took over management of the five-theater complex in 2007, they remained committed to offering quality independent, arthouse, and international films to local audiences. The Ritz Five is an inclusive space for film lovers with visual or hearing impairments, too, providing alternative listening devices and personal CC devices for most films, as well as descriptive narration systems for compatible screenings. Through the pandemic, the theater has remained in compliance with the City’s guidance, which currently includes requiring proof of vaccination upon entry to the venue.

cinéSPEAK

A project of CultureWorks Greater Philadelphia, cinéSPEAK isn’t technically a physical movie theater—yet. Part publication and part virtual movie theater, the organization was started in 2013 to engage diverse audiences in conversation around contemporary global and independent filmmaking by curating screenings and publishing an online film journal. Adapting to the pandemic after years of in-person programming, cinéSPEAK held outdoor screenings last summer in West Philly’s Clark Park and offers virtual film screenings each week.

In 2022, cinéSPEAK has plans to open a brick-and-mortar location at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community in West Philly. With preview screenings beginning in February and a grand opening slated for early April, attendees can expect engaging programming, like genre nights, director Q&As, free all-ages/family matinees, filmmaker workshops, and collaborations with local arts and culture organizations. The organization is currently collecting donations in support of the Calvary Center cinema opening.

In addition to its planned virtual and in-person programming, cinéSPEAK will kick off its second annual Under the Stars outdoor screening program in May.

A four story brick house on a busy street corner during the day. Lightbox logo can be seen in one of the windows.
Lightbox found a new home at UArts at the beginning of 2020. (Photo courtesy of the University of the Arts.)

Lightbox Film Center

Formerly located at the International House in West Philly, the Lightbox Film Center found a new home at UArts in January 2020, situated in the 270-seat Gershman Auditorium on South Broad. Showcasing a roster of mainly experimental and international films in both digital and legacy formats, the Lightbox offers a unique, educational moviegoing experience, supplemented by artist talks and academic programming.

In addition to partnering with local film festivals dedicated to showcasing work from underserved and underrepresented communities, this film center has been working with some of the nation’s premiere film archives to preserve and digitize “overlooked milestones of cinematic history.”

The Lightbox Film Center boasts a 40-year history of expanding access to a variety of films to Philadelphians, and the pandemic has not prevented it from delivering. The center offers both virtual and in-person programming, requiring attendees to remain in compliance with local pandemic safety ordinances.

PFS Bourse

When the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse closed in January 2020, Philly’s film community took it to heart. The cherished theater was a mainstay for moviegoers seeking out indie and arthouse cinema for nearly 30 years; many would miss the joyful anticipation and exclusivity of taking the long escalator down into the underground theater complex and watching a movie they couldn’t see anywhere else in the city.

Fortunately, the member-supported, not-for-profit Philadelphia Film Society was quick to step in, completely renovating the five-theater venue and transforming it into what is now the PFS Bourse. With new 4K and 2K projectors and 7.1 Dolby surround sound systems in all five theaters, audiences at the new PFS Bourse can continue to enjoy the Bourse’s unique programming tradition plus a new, high-quality standard of presentation.

Hiway Theater

Located just a few miles north of the city border in Jenkintown, the Hiway Theater’s old-fashioned marquee and neon tower invite customers to take a step into a historical moviegoing experience. The Hiway, built in 1913 as a single-theater venue for screening silent films, has remained a staple for local film lovers for over a century, changing names and changing hands several times while still preserving the aesthetic of an old-fashioned movie house. Today, the theater is one of several in the Philadelphia suburbs operated by Renew Theaters, a non-profit theater management company. (Renew’s other historic theaters, the Ambler Theater, County Theater, and Princeton Garden Theater, are also worth checking out if you’re venturing further outside the city.)

Movie lovers looking for a mix of major releases, international films, documentaries, and indie darlings will want to keep the charming Hiway in their theater rotation. In order to ease audiences back into seats, management requires masks in the theater (except when having food or drink) and has special vaccination-only days on Sundays and Mondays. Because the theater had to close its doors for 15 months, Renew also encourages donations to help preserve and maintain the standard of operations of the much-loved historic theater.

The Philadelphia Film Center

This iconic Center City building, known today as the Philadelphia Film Center, has held many names and played various roles since it was built in 1880, from clothing store to movie house to music theater. The theater has hosted the world premieres of several films throughout its lifespan, including Rocky II in 1970 (as the Midtown Theater) and The Sixth Sense in 1999 (as the Prince Music Theater). Suffice to say, this venue is a true landmark of Philadelphia history.

The Philadelphia Film Society acquired the building from the American Musical Theater Festival in 2015 and rededicated the venue to showing film in 2018. Maintaining the glamor its history suggests, the two-theater venue is today the best independent venue in the city for watching first-run blockbusters. The Philadelphia Film Center is a haven for moviegoers who want to balance seeing buzzy films with supporting a nonprofit theater management network dedicated to serving its community.

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