Back to IndieWire

The Theater Experience is Here to Stay

The Theater Experience is Here to Stay

As the independent theater exhibitors prepare to attend the Art House Convergence on Monday January 16 – 19 in Midway Utah, the veteran exhibitor John Vanco of IFC Center Cinema speaks with Peter Belsito.

The IFC Center Cinema on 6thth Avenue (of the Americas) in New York City’s Greenwich Village area is managed by 

General Manager / Vice President, 

John Vanco.  The theater is one of the most important exhibition of film venues in the New York City area.    It opened as a new theater on June 17, 2005. The previous theater in the facility had been shuttered, then gutted after 2001.

The building, from the 1820s, had been a church facility for decades.  It then became a stained glass factory after 1900.  It opened as a film theater, The Waverly, in 1937 but the layout still felt like a large church.  It had a single large auditorium with a balcony.type

In the 1960s the theater showed edgy film and art films.  In the 1970s it became a venue for the Rocky Horror Picture Show and midnight fare.  In 1980 it was decided to get rid of the balcony to add a second screen there.  Architecturally speaking  it was a badly done job.  The theater screened At that time fare such as Mommy Dearest which, like Rocky Horror, had a camp following who would see the film repeatedly.type

In the 1980s and 1990s the theater showed art fare in first runs.  It changed owners.  Clearview  Theaters wanted to close it permanently.type

Jonathan Sehring, who worked for IFC when they took over the theater, complained then that theaters for independent and art films were small, old and shabby.  He envisioned the Waverly as a good indie place to see films.

Jim Dolan, who headed Cablevision which owned IFC, said to Sehring, “Make it the Radio City of indie film”.

In 2005 it opened with 3 screens and a restaurant.  In 2008 they closed the restaurant and added two more screens.  Today it is a successful and busy theater showing independent film titles that people are eager to see.

John Vanco hails from Charlottesville Virginia where he grew up.  He went to college at the University of Virginia and majored in English literature.  There was no formal film program there but he took what film courses were offered. 

He had an experience then in his junior year which affected him profoundly.  He went to a Virginia film festival where he saw Gus Van Sant’s masterwork My Own Private Idaho. Sarah Eaton, an executive then with Fine Line Features was there and talked about the business of film distribution and how it related to such high level works of art like Van Sant’s film.  She talked about the job of finding audiences for that type of very unique film.  John was so impressed and liked her so much that he approached her then and she gave him time and they talked about film and what she did.

He then decided that during the next summer break from school he would become an intern in a film company.  That summer he went to New York City and interned at Fine Line Features being run then by the great Ira Deutchman.  That experience with that company that summer convinced him he wanted to do film for his life’s work.

He sent letters and resumes to New York City based indie film companies.  Don Krim (who passed away only a few months ago) offered him a part time job at his company Kino Films.  Another great indie executive Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films offered John an assistant’s position.  He stayed there three and a half years.  Next he went to Miramax publicity (‘this was really boot camp for me’).  When there he met during Toronto Film festival his future business partner, Noah Cowan.

Noah then worked for TIFF / Toronto International Film Festival.  He also had a small company, Cowboy Booking International.  John’s thinking at this time was that he wanted to advance from Miramax and he wanted to run his own distribution company.

The original activity of Cowboy then was to take sales agent films to book into festivals to then create buzz, reviews and business opportunities for distribution for the films.  This was in November 1997.

The next January in Sundance they had the documentary Dear Jesse about being young and gay in North Carolina.  They also has The Mirror there, which was acclaimed Iranian Director Jafar Panahi’s follow up to his breakout hit, The White Balloon.

So their business model was to pick up (i.e., acquire, buy) films and then figure out how to finance the “P & A”(note – film business term meaning, literally, “prints and advertising” or publicity and or exhibition costs such as any technical issues related to releasing a film).  HBO then picked up Dear Jesse and they made money on that deal.  They also repped the great classic film library for Janus Films.  The company had a good run and closed in 2003.

At this time they, John and Noah, also had a theater in Tribeca near Canal Street.  The Screening Room.  They had a good run of 2 years calendar programming indie and art films, 1999 – 2001. Some of their great titles then included Kiezlowskis’ amazing The Decalog and the disturbing French film Fat Girl.  John smiles when he thinks back of this period in his career.  “Now it seems like those days were a dry run for my work at the IFC Center”.

Today he screens at the IFC Center a mix of repertory and first run films.  They have a calendar of upcoming events of course but We’re not hard and locked into a schedule.  For example if we have something very successful screening we’ll keep it running”.

The theater is creative and varied in its offerings to audiences.  They have:

-Weekend Classics

-Matinee Series 

-Series of older films

-The Waverly Midnight Series including Kubrick movies, Nicholas Cage films, Italian splatter films

-Stranger than Fiction is a Tuesday night weekly documentary series programmed by Toronto Programmer Thom Powers.  (Powers explained to me how this works. ‘The filmmaker comes and introduces the film, then the film screens, afterwards a moderator talks on stage to the filmmaker, then afterwards we all, audience included, go to dinner together’.)

-Queer Art Film with works programmed by Ira Sachs and Adam Baran,

Once a month a guest picks a film followed by discussion with audience.

They have lots of new films in the theater from such companies as IFC, Sundance Selects, Strand releasing and Zeitgeist Films.  The screenings always feature in persons of actors and / or filmmakers.

John goes on. “We try to have constant reminders of the thrill of the theatrical experience.  The thrill of sharing the cinema experience with strangers in a dark room.  This experience always changes, enhances our vision and reminds us of cinema’s thrilling theatricality. Our audiences respond positively to what it’s like to sit with a live audience and have common experiences with others.  Plus they get to see the creative types in person and experience their viewpoint on their work.”

Instead of ads they show shorts.  Formerly in movie theaters you had news, the “B” picture, then the “A” picture.  Now most theaters show ads to make more money.

John thinks the Arclight Theaters provide a good experience.  (Peter’s note – I agree.  Their tickets cost more but the seating and viewing experience is great always.)

In some ways John thinks L.A. has theater space that is “freer and better”.  “The problem in New York City is that space, any space, is so expensive. Our theater here is for example one third the size of  the Angelica Theater (at Houston and Broadway).  The Lincoln Plaza Cinemas have 2 and ½ times the seats as we do here.  Our 480 seats total is a problem.  But, that said, New York City is a great place for a theatrical movie experience.”

IFC has one of the three busiest theaters in America. Besides the IFC Center that John runs, the theaters at Union Square and Lincoln Plaza are “the top 3 New York City theaters” in terms of filling seats.

“For example (note – John was speaking in October when he said this) the Herzog cave movie in 3D has been playing since April and has made over U.S. $650,000 here which is 12% of its to-date U.S. theater gross.”

Finally John is very strong on this. “The theatrical experience is NOT going to go away.  There is really in our business these days too much doom and gloom, too much of this talk that now we’re seeing the end of cinema.  Frankly I believe the hassle of going out to go to the movies is something people will always do.  What I aspire to for the IFC Center is that it always will enable people to expand their experiences and world view.  I want them to feel that this theater always plays great films and if it is here then I want to see that movie.”

This Article is related to: Features