Much that has been written about the Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side of Manhattan includes the words “legendary,” “renowned” or “celebrated.”
Soon, another adjective may need to be added: closed.
The art house movie theater, whose operators have been credited with introducing certain independent and foreign films to the likes of Susan Sontag and Woody Allen, is set to close in January after the building’s owner declined to renew its lease.
The planned closing, reported in Deadline, sent shock waves through the theater’s small community of devotees, some of whom learned the news only upon entering the theater on Saturday morning.
“Oh God, that’s bad news,” Marion Marino, 83, said as she waited in the lobby to see “Darkest Hour,” a film about Winston Churchill.
The six-screen theater, which opened in 1981, is jointly operated by the building’s owner, Milstein Properties, and the theater operators, Daniel and Toby Talbot.
The Talbots, who have been married for 68 years, have been fixtures of the film circuit for decades: Mr. Talbot founded New Yorker Films, an independent film distribution company, in the 1960s to introduce American audiences to foreign films.
When Ms. Talbot wrote a memoir about the couple’s life in 2009, the director Martin Scorsese wrote the foreword. The book also included program notes written by literary figures such as Jack Kerouac from movies the couple had screened at their theaters over the years.
The couple served as tastemakers for American film buffs, often screening films in exclusive engagements before they went on to a wider release. A 2011 article in The New York Times said “generations of moviegoers” had visited the Talbots’ theaters, of which Lincoln Plaza is the last of four, to have “their minds and worlds expanded, and even blown.”
“Our theater kind of served as a springboard for a lot of foreign films,” Ms. Talbot said in an interview on Saturday. If Lincoln Plaza screened a film, she said, other theaters might follow suit. The theater helped introduce American audiences to the German directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog.
Ms. Talbot said she had “no idea” what the building’s owners plan to do with the space. In an emailed statement Saturday night, Milstein Properties said it built 30 Lincoln Plaza in 1978.
“We are long-term members of this community and have played a central role in nurturing this special theater,” the statement said, adding that “vital structural work” was needed to repair and waterproof the plaza around the building.
“At the completion of this work, we expect to reopen the space as a cinema that will maintain its cultural legacy far into the future,” the statement said.
A Milstein spokesman said in an email that it was yet to be determined if the cinema would reopen with the Talbots in charge.
Stepping off the escalator into the theater, which is below an apartment building, feels like entering a bygone era. A statue of Humphrey Bogart stands in a corner. French movie posters adorn the lavender walls. The concessions stand sells muffins and carrot cake.
A display case in the lobby holds the seafoam-green dress worn by Kate Winslet in “Wonder Wheel,” a Woody Allen film playing at the theater.
As moviegoers filed into the theater on Saturday morning, they mourned a New York institution.
“We’re somewhat brokenhearted,” Paul Johnson, 68, said.
Mr. Johnson recalled seeing art films at niche theaters such as Lincoln Plaza or the Thalia on the Upper West Side, which closed in 1987. “You could go to the movie theater and experience something larger than life,” he said.
Allan Sigall, 68, of Brooklyn said he often checks the newspaper to see what is playing at Lincoln Plaza. He pulled out a copy of the Saturday New York Times and pointed to the theater’s advertisement.
“I have eclectic taste,” Mr. Sigall said. “Most movies aren’t made for people my age.”
The rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon has threatened not just art-house movie theaters but mainstream ones as well. Ivan Tabarez, the assistant manager at Lincoln Plaza, said he was not surprised the theater would be closing.
“You work here long enough and you see how things are going,” said Mr. Tabarez, 28, who started at the theater 10 years ago. “Younger folks are not really into it. They’re more into ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Iron Man.’”
Mr. Talbot seemed to recognize the decline of interest in art films several decades ago: In an interview with The Times in 1973, he said there had once been close to 600 art houses around the country devoted to foreign films and that number had dropped almost to zero.
“They’ve gone over to the commercial product,” he said at the time. “They play what’s box office.”
On Saturday, Ms. Talbot said Lincoln Plaza’s mission had been the opposite: “We often will play a film that we know has no, quote, commercial value, but we admire it and respect it and would like to share it with our audience,” she said.
Moviegoers increasingly want “the experience,” Mr. Tabarez said, such as reclining seats and huge screens. “We don’t have that stuff,” he said. “Here, it’s all about the movie.”
The lack of flashy amenities isn’t the only sign of the theater’s age. As he spoke, Mr. Tabarez printed out-of-order signs for two stalls in the men’s restroom. The automatic ticket kiosk was broken, too.
“A lot of them have a love-hate relationship” with the theater, Mr. Tabarez said of its regular customers. “They love our movies, but they hate the fact that we never renovate.”
Still, he said, “I’m pretty sure a lot of these folks are going to start crying.”