New York City has been a focal point for arthouse theaters ever since they existed, but in recent years, the very concept of a well-programmed venue showcasing work from around the world has become a challenging proposition. As both independent venues and multiplexes battle the onslaught of home viewing opportunities, movie theaters must work harder than ever to validate their existence.
Enter the Metrograph. The boutique two-screen theater — which also features a restaurant, a bookstore and a lounge — officially opens its doors at 7 Ludlow Street in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday with many reasons to pay a visit. The initial programming is a cinephile’s dream, with retrospectives including a Jean Eustache series and "Welcome to Metrograph: A-F," which contains films ranging from Robert Bresson’s "The Devil Probably" to Jean Cocteau’s "Blood of a Poet" and Andy Warhol’s "Chelsea Girls." That alone samples the eclectic taste of the Metrograph’s top programmers, Jake Perlin (formerly the film curator at BAM) and Aliza Ma (fresh from the assistant curator role at the Museum of the Moving Image).
Under the guidance of Alexander Olch, a filmmaker ("The Windmill Movie") and fashion designer who launched the Metrograph down the street from his clothing store, Perlin and Ma are gearing up to introduce an ambitious new presence to the New York film scene. Pairing the retrospectives with first-run features ("A Space Program" opens March 18), the team is betting on a committed filmgoing community to sustain its efforts in the longterm. A week before the theater’s official opening, Indiewire sat down with Olch, Perlin and Ma in the Metrograph’s cluttered, dusty offices as its staff swarmed about to discuss the theater’s potential.
Let’s get right to it: In an age dominated by home viewing, how do you justify the opening of a brick-and-mortar movie theater?
JAKE PERLIN: Seeing a film projected in a dark room on a gigantic screen on 35mm — or digitally — is just an experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. There’s certainly still a desire for it. We realized that even more than five years ago, images are available in so many different ways. There’s a great exhilaration you get from watching things at home and a great exhilaration you get from watching in the theater. So it doesn’t have to be one or the other. They can compliment each other. We can show something you haven’t seen before and then there’s a whole world out there to supplement that — or vice versa.
ALIZA MA: I don’t think anything can replace the social ritual of going to the theater.
ALEXANDER OLCH: There’s really two categories of experience. There’s staying home and going out. You can stay at home and order on Seamless; I don’t think that stops people from going out to restaurants. Watching something on a computer doesn’t stop you from going out if it’s a fantastic experience. So we’re invested in giving you a fantastic experience, both for the movie itself and for everything else.
JP: That’s why we wanted to double down on the experience by having both 35mm and DCP. We’ve created this whole space that involves social interaction — the cafe, the restaurant. Once you get out of the house, we want you to feel like you’re somewhere comfortable. I think we’ve made a great effort on that. A lot of projection in cinemas these days is just a slight exaggeration of what you can get on your television at home. We want to give you something that cannot be replicated at home.
Are there any precedents that inspired this approach?
JP: We took a lot of inspirations from cinematheques around the world. When I first went to Lisbon and saw what they were doing there, I just thought it was tremendous. The theaters were more comfortable than any I’d ever been in, yet they were doing a Phillipe Garrel retrospective. There was a space there to spend the day as well in comfort. I’ll always love the ritual of racing to get a slice of pizza in the five minutes you have between two films. That doesn’t have to be the way, though — it can be a little easier.
AM: Bits and pieces of this equation exist everywhere, but we’re putting them together in an equation that hasn’t existed before. For me, the cinematheque experience is definitely what we’re drawing on.
AO: I looked for inspiration from places that no longer exist. Growing up here, the Beekman Theatre, the Plaza Theatre and now, sadly, the Ziegfield Theatre. It was the idea of the theater as special place unto itself. We’re trying to bring some of that magic back to the experience.
JP: These were places I got to attend in my teen years before they closed. There was something really magical about the changing films every day and seeing how they all fit together. The 8th Street Playhouse was really where I was first getting into cinema and would see my first Truffaut, my first Fellini. The Bleecker Street was pretty serious, risky stuff, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. But there was a trust that the audience would meet it. That’s how we feel, too. We know the audience is going to meet us. We’re not unwilling to take some risks.
AO: Because I’m a filmmaker, this place has a close relationship to the filmmaking community, not just the film-watching community. That sets a tone for what’s happening here. So directors like Noah Baumbach are actually doing double feature screenings for us. Directors are very much a part of what’s happening here. That’s a very special idea. That’s the romantic notion of an old movie studio — that’s where we got the name of our restaurant, the Commissary. We want an atmosphere here of people actually making films, which should excite our audiences.
The Alamo Drafthouse is famous for combining food, alcohol and movies in a single package. But you’re keeping those ingredients separate.
AM: We don’t want to dilute any of those experiences.
AO: I think the unique idea we’ve had is that this is a place you can visit where there are many reasons to be here — the programming, the things you can do before and after the film, and things you can do if you’re not going to see a film. The identity of the place is defined by all the exciting things that are happening. That is, itself, a different idea.
What do you see as the biggest revenue driver?
AO: I think they’re equally feeding off each other, which is the biggest part of this. The prestige of what Jake and Aliza programs brings an audience. We then want to serve that audience in many different ways. The experience will drive an audience that will respond to the programming. So we see this as a completely symbiotic relationship.
But what’s going to make the most money out of that equation?
AO: When we ran the numbers, it’s actually equal. That’s what’s interesting about it. We proportioned it in cold, hard numbers the sizes of the different parts of the space in ways that generate equal revenue. The way we’re looking at it is getting a certain number of people into the building. Given the size of the two theaters, the math works out from there.
JP: It also works based on a certain type of programming that’s firing on all cylinders. We can do week-long runs and retrospectives. When we did projections of how we imagined audiences attending and purchasing tickets, we were counting on some audiences who come every few weeks, because they just want to see first-runt films that appeal to them. But we’re also taking into account the audience member who wants to come every day for a retrospective. We’re finding ways to serve both of those people.
What can we glean about your sensibilities based on the "Welcome to Metrograph" series you’ve put together? For example, there’s not much Hollywood represented there…
JP: Well, we’ve only gone A – F so far. Specifically about the Hollywood stuff, we’ve already had this conversation. The idea behind the series is that it’s one film per director. So which Howard Hawks do you show? Which John Ford? The classic Hollywood situation is tough.
AM: It’s a pretty masochistic exercise. We needed some rules. You will see some. "The Clock" is already on there.
How do you define the split between audience members who are already on your team and those you need to win over? For example, you’re starting off with a Jean Eustache retrospective. How much of your audience needs to be excited about that for the series to work?
AO: I would love for people to say, "I don’t know what’s going on at Metrograph tonight, but let’s go." Along with that, I think people want to be told, "This is interesting." That’s what’s exciting in this day and age, where you can actually watch something on your computer.
JP: Within the Eustache series, we’ve tried to address this. There are certain people who know the work. There are other people who’ve seen nothing. We’re showing "The Mother and the Whore" five or six times. So if you want to dip your toe in the series, we’re making that one more available.
What sort of challenges do you foresee with so much effort being put into showing movies on film?
JP: A lot of restorations are happening digitally. The biggest obstacle is getting the prints we want.
AM: We’re dealing with that every day from the studios, but we’re hoping that with every demand we make, however small it ends up being — a drop in the bucket for the studios — it still means something. We’re pushing back so hopefully one day we can make a bigger difference. We’re noticing that people do respond to our efforts to try to show 35mm.
JP: In the first calendar, we’re showing three new 35mm prints of Frederick Wiseman films. I’ve never seen any Wiseman films projected on 35mm. Usually, they’re on 16. But the Library of Congress and Zipporah, Fred’s company, decided this was significant. We’re doing a weeklong run of a print for "The Student Nurses," which the Academy wanted to do. It’s different from the way it was when I was at BAM three years ago — and from what it was like for Aliza at the Museum of the Moving Image six months ago.
AM: Certain studios were loaning out prints six months that, since I started at Metrograph, we’ve tried to loan out — and they’ve turned us down, because some top-down decision has been made to stop loaning 35mm prints. As an exhibitor and a booker, there’s really no recourse for that. Fox Archive has stopped loaning prints altogether.
AO: Meanwhile, in our balcony lounge, there’s a window where you can look into the projection booth and watch our projectionist thread the film up. That’s part of the experience that’s so exciting. You can actually watch this. In our opinion, there’s a huge appetite for that — to see the roots of what cinema really is: Celluloid and light projected through it.
JP: When it comes down to it, there are still more films that we can show on film than on DCP. There are just tons that exist in archives and the studios are willing to loan them. Does it bum me out that if I wanted to show "Once Upon a Time in the West" tomorrow, we might have to show it on DCP? Sure, but we’re showing a 35mm of "Duck, You Sucker!"
AM: All of our restoration titles in the "Old and Improved" series are on film. All of "Welcome to Metrograph" is on film.
JP: We will never run out of things that are worthy of being shown on film.
AM: We want to work on programming holistically in conjunction with restorations we can be happy with and premiering them at Metrograph.
JP: We’re thinking about purchasing prints, which we’ve already done, and getting involved in an earlier stage with an archive and saying, "We want to work with you on this." This is something Aliza’s really pursuing internationally right now. You no longer can call a studio and say, "Hey, I want to show ‘Johnny Guitar’ on 35mm," and it shows up in the mail.
AM: But we are showing "Johnny Guitar" on 35mm. It just needs to take a different path now. There’s an archaeological dig involved in the programming process that didn’t exist before — but that rarifies the experience for us and for the audiences.
So what’s the thinking behind the programming of the first-run stuff?
AM: In the first calendar, it was about rediscovering titles that have been buried for whatever reason. For example, Johnny To’s "Office" in 3-D. That did come out, but it was gone as soon as it showed up. We wanted to highlight films and give them a second chance. But we also wanted to show films that might not otherwise get out there, like the new Tsai Ming-lian film "Afternoon."
How do you plan to represent on changing audience sensibilities — for example, the golden age of television?
JP: All of us in our lives enjoy binging on television series…
AM: Watching sports.
JP: I blazed through "The Knick." But there’s also cinema that falls into those categories. I know that the person who spent six hours with a certain miniseries is going to love "Scenes From a Marriage." We used to have to wait ever week for television. But there’s been a chance in viewing habits. I spent seven-and-a-half hours this week watching a new documentary about OJ Simpson. It’s great. We will meet that sensibility with our programming. People might really dig a Sunday afternoon with a serial. We’re actually more excited that people are willing to watch something for eight hours.
AM: You can really go down the rabbit hole of auteurist TV productions. There’s "La maison des bois," Todd Haynes’ "Mildred Pierce," and there’s Soderbergh.
JP: "Berlin Alexanderplatz."
AM: Internationally, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff. Our programming philosophy is to try to find new ways of showing anything that’s interesting that might be slightly outside of the box. We can change the context of something you might not normally see on the film screen to see how the audience reacts to it.
How will you measure the initial success of the Metrograph?
JP: Attendance. Enthusiasm directed not only towards the programming but also the space. We want the place to be very welcoming and comfortable. I’ll measure success in the reactions by the people who are here.
AM: You can easily figure out how people react to films by being the room. Very quickly we’ll be able to know if we’re going the right direction. The biggest difference for me is that literally everyone on staff goes to films religiously, whereas other institutions may have somebody in the marketing department who can’t even make it to the local multiplex. Our coming together and making this experience will hopefully be noticed by the audience.
JP: We’re completely immersed in this.
Is there a bigger play here?
JP: Space. We want to show movies in space.
AO: One step at a time.
JP: We’re already make inroads with archives and distributors in terms of thinking interesting ways to present their films. We have the bookstore and we already have some plans on the publishing side. Michael Koresky, our editorial director, has been commissioning work. Our first calendar will not only be a film schedule; it’ll actually have essays right in there. In between two series there will be a new piece by Molly Haskell. We’re putting the Metrograph stamp on other areas of film culture besides just going to films.