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.