The IFC Center in New York City’s West Village is nearing approval for an expansion plan that will turn the five-screen movie theater into an 11-screen cinema, but securing a happy ending will require additional support from New Yorkers. The theater received approval of its plans from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission last fall, but is awaiting a hearing on its variances application that General Manager John Vanco says will depend on local residents for support.
The Board of Standards and Appeals is expected to hold the hearing sometime this summer. In the meantime, the IFC is participating in local community board meetings to answer questions from residents about the proposed construction.
“This whole process of getting all the permissions and sitting down with all of the elected officials and community groups is a project in and of itself,” Vanco said. “Not everybody loves everything about our plan.”
At a community board meeting earlier this month, a number of local residents expressed concerns about the expansion, but most questions focused not on the IFC Center’s owns plans, but what a future tenant might be able to do if the IFC Center ever left the space.
“The opposition seemed kind of kooky,” said Godfrey Cheshire, a filmmaker and journalist who attended the meeting and voiced his support for the project. “I basically just talked about how I thought that at this stage of film culture, places like the IFC Center are important for keeping alive independent films…The expansion is well merited.”
The permissions the IFC is seeking don’t allow it to one day become a different kind of business, according to Vanco. “You’re only allowed to use it in the way that was intended,” Vanco said, adding that the architecture of the space doesn’t lend itself to other kinds of retail.
As Indiewire reported last summer, the proposed expansion will roughly double the size of the IFC Center building, from around 10,000 square feet to more than 20,000 square feet, and nearly the double the total number of seats, from 480 to 940. A new lobby area that will be nearly 10 times the size of the theater’s existing space will also allow patrons to purchase tickets without waiting in line on the sidewalk.
“The first thing we wanted to address was, how do we stop making our ticket holders have to line up outside in all weather?” Vanco said. “It’s the worst thing about the existing IFC Center.” The new lobby will also include an expanded concession area offering hot foods, coffee and cappuccinos. While the plans involve the construction of a new building on what is now an open lot facing Cornelia Street, ticket holders and patrons will continue to enter and exit the theater only through its main entrance on Sixth Avenue. The total cost of the project will exceed $10 million and is expected to take between two and three years to complete, according to Vanco.
Despite the concerns from local residents about the implications of the IFC’s plans, retired MoMA film curator Larry Kardish — a West Village resident since 1971 — is optimistic about the expansion. “I suspect that they’ll get clearance,” he said. “All of us who support the activity of the IFC Center will make a persuasive argument that more of these small cinemas just enrich the culture of the city.”
For film producer and editor of Filmmaker magazine Scott Macaulay, who sees movies primarily at press screenings, festivals or on DVD screeners, the IFC Center is one of the few cinemas he continues to visit on a regular basis. “It’s not just another movie theater,” he said. “They surround their screenings with so much other context and contact with the filmmakers.” Macaulay, who also spoke at the recent community board meeting, added, “It would really be a shame if the IFC Center wasn’t allowed to expand.”
One of the reasons the IFC Center needs to expand is to keep up with the offerings at New York’s other prominent indie theaters. At 480 current seats, the IFC is slightly more than half the size of the east side’s Landmark Sunshine and roughly a third of the size as the Angelika Theater on Houston Street and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side. The IFC’s lease also includes the empty lot that it hasn’t been able to develop to generate revenue.
“We’re not just paying for this space that we’re occupying and showing movies in,” Vanco said. “We’re also paying for this other chunk of space, so we have to really overperform just to keep our heads above water.”
To encourage further action on behalf of the expansion, IFC Center has set up a page on its site for patrons to share their support.