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Quad Cinema Reborn: How Charles Cohen Gave an Old New York Theater a Second Chance

The Quad Cinema has been a part of the New York movie theater scene for years. But it's about to reopen its doors with an exciting new agenda.

A rendering of the new Quad Cinemas.

A rendering of the new Quad Cinema.

Pentagram/Courtesy of the Quad Cinema

New York is undergoing a renaissance for independent movie theaters, with newcomers like Metrograph and the Alamo Drafthouse joining stalwarts like Film Forum, BAM and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in making New York one of the preeminent American cities for cinephiles. Now the scene is about to accommodate one more newcomer — although in some ways, this one’s been around for a while.  

Strictly speaking, the Quad Cinema won’t be the newest multi-screen theater on the block when it opens its doors April 14. In fact, it’ll be the oldest. The first multiplex in the city when it opened in 1972, the Quad catered to passionate audiences for decades before slowly declining in recent years due to disrepair and a decline in programming quality linked to an increased number of four-walled screenings.  

So Charles S. Cohen, the real-estate mogul and owner and founder of Cohen Media Group who bought the Quad in 2014, sees his project as a mission.

“It has a special place in the memories of many filmgoers,” Cohen told IndieWire, noting the Quad’s West Village location historically made it a favorite among New York University and New School students. 

Quad 2.0 will be a for-profit cinema, so getting butts in seats will be crucial. Cohen hopes to entice audiences with luxury seating, a beer and wine bar in the lobby, and the hiring of two prominent programmers: C. Mason Wells, formerly of the IFC Center, and Gavin Smith, formerly of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Wells, whom Cohen brought on as the Director of Repertory Programming, doesn’t think having one more New York arthouse will cannibalize the market. “I kind of think that good movie theaters in New York should be like pizza places: There should be one on every corner,” he said. He added that he doesn’t see other theaters like the Metrograph, Nitehawk, and Film Forum as competition, but rather as friendly partners “building this habit of cinephilia in moviegoers.”

But a movie theater these days has to be more than that, and Wells is approaching his programming duties with an eye toward showing audiences an angle on film history that hasn’t been exposed before.

“I’m interested in the filmmakers who have fallen out of fashion, and to put in the work to try to bring them back to audiences,” he said, pointing to planned retrospectives like one of Italian writer-director Lina Wertmüller.

Lina Wertmüller swept away

Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away”

The Quad will show more standard repertory fare, too, but Wells hopes to show familiar works through a new lens. Instead of programming a series by director, for example, he might line them up by other key behind-the-scenes players. The upcoming documentary “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story,” about the romantic and creative partnership of storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his film-researcher wife Lillian, will allow Wells to program a series of films the couple worked on — movies that run the gamut of genres and makers, and never would have been grouped together before.

Wells is also excited to make waves with the theater’s unique First Encounters series, which allows film luminaries like Kenneth Lonergan and Sandra Bernhard to choose a classic they have never seen to watch for the first time with an audience. He likes the promise of soliciting some unpredictable reactions.

“A screening might not go well for the person,” he said. “They might have a movie they’ve wanted to see their entire life, and they watch it finally, and they’re disappointed by it. And that says something about them that I think is really unique and special and raw.”

And the Quad isn’t joking around with its film history business plan: the theater plans to screen 60 different repertory films in May alone. Wells says the theater will make every effort to obtain the 35mm prints of films when possible, even though screening them is a more expensive and time-consuming process than DCPs (the theater must pay separate fees to the studio and to the company that owns the print). When the Quad does screen digital, Wells will try to make sure it’s a restored version.

Cohen is also open about his plans to use the Quad as an “exhibition space available for films that I feel the public needs to see,” including films owned by his Cohen Media Group. The CMG library includes recent acclaimed fare like “The Salesman” as well as restored offerings like “Daughters of the Dust.”

None of this exactly screams “moneymaker,” but that doesn’t bother Cohen, who still thinks the theater can “stabilize” enough to survive.

“Am I swimming against the tide?” he asked. “Probably. But that’s OK. You swim stronger. It doesn’t mean you don’t get to the other side.”

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