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Construction Village, Part I: Debris and Debacle

Construction Village, Part I: Debris and Debacle

by Mark J. Huisman

Filmmaker Catherine Gund arrived at Cinema Village on Friday, December
11 full of anticipation, her distributor, Sande Zeig of Artistic License
Films, in tow. Gund’s documentary, “Hallelujah: Ron Athey, A Story of
,” was finally opening after its debut date had been pushed
back four times — almost an entire month — due to renovation delays at
the venerable theater, one of the last remaining independently-owned art
houses in New York City.

Cinema Village had been closed since late last summer, when its longtime
manager, Ed Arentz, decided to turn the single-screen house into a
three-screen mini-plex. Arentz hoped to re-open in mid-November, at
which time he would be able to offer a wider array of options to
filmmakers, including the ability to show both 16 and 35 millimeter
prints. Cinema Village would also be able to present a greater number
and variety of films to the movie-going public, something of immense
importance for independent theaters as the exhibition landscape is
increasingly controlled by corporate chains and the indie subsidiaries
of Hollywood studios. Arentz would also be able to compete more
vigorously with the Quad Cinemas, a four-screen indie theater a mere two
blocks from Cinema Village.

The renovation project, however, was repeatedly delayed beyond its
intended completion date in mid-November. Almost all the films
scheduled for dates in November and December were repeatedly pushed
back. Zeig and Gund adjusted accordingly for several weeks, sending out
revised e-mail updates, holding off on paid advertising and notifying
editors of the delays in hopes their publications would hold pending
features and reviews.

“HALLELUJAH! starts November 20 at Cinema Village” thundered the first
e-mail notice Gund sent on Friday, October 23. A subsequent e-mail,
dated Monday, November 16, began “Due to delayed renovations at the
theater, Hallelujah! will open at Cinema Village on Friday, December
4.” While Zeig and Gund were able to push back several promotional
events tied to the film’s release, including a party at the Clit Club,
they were not able to salvage a performance by Athey himself.

That performance took place on November 19, the night before the film
was originally scheduled to open. It could not be moved as Athey’s
performance schedule is booked far in advance. It was a significant
blow to Zeig’s promotional efforts, as Athey had not appeared in the
United States since 1994, when he became swept up in NEA-related
right-wing attacks over a performance at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center.

Even though she regrets the loss of press that might have resulted from
having the event coincide with the Hallelujah’s actual opening date,
Zeig says she took Arentz at his word about the state of his theater.
But after three consecutive delays and “almost daily” phone calls to
Arentz, Zeig visited Cinema Village in person on Monday, November 30.

“There was no way we could have opened,” Zeig says. “The place was a
wreck. There was construction going on in the lobby, the theater, the
box office and the rest rooms. There were construction personnel all
over the theater.” Zeig and Arentz agreed to push the film two weeks
this time. The next day, on Tuesday, December 1, Gund sent yet another
postponement e-mail: “Due to even further DELAYS in RENOVATIONS at the
THEATER, Hallelujah will open on Friday December 11.”

Zeig continued to check progress with Arentz until Monday, December 7,
when he gave her “a big thumbs-up” to open that Friday, December 11. But
that day, when Gund, Zeig and Artistic License staffer Vicky Waldron
arrived at the theater for their debut screening (scheduled for 5pm),
they were shocked at what they found. “Everything was covered in dust,”
says Zeig. “There was a big pile of equipment covered by a cloth in the
lobby and a huge bin of debris outside blocking the theater from the
view of passersby. The marquee was not lit and the name of the film
wasn’t even up.”

Even so, there were a half dozen people waiting for “Hallelujah’s” first
screening, which was promptly canceled. Those patrons were invited back
to the next screening free of charge but that show was delayed by
forty-five minutes so everyone was admitted free. Zeig and Gund even
took drink orders and brought back sodas and snacks because the
concession stand was not open. According to Waldron, people were in a
mostly grin and bear it mood — even Arentz, which she did not find
appropriate. “He had an attitude like it was a funny situation,”
Waldron recalls. “He kept joking around, saying things like ‘Don’t
worry, we’ll figure it out.’ He just didn’t seem to be taking the
situation seriously.”

Zeig asked Arentz to make sure the poster and marquee went up the next
day, requests to which she says he readily agreed. But on Saturday the
marquee was still bare. Waldron and her boyfriend located a ladder and
the plastic marquee letters and put the film’s title up on the marquee
themselves. Zeig and Waldron were stunned to find that its interior had
still not been properly cleaned.

“We ended up wiping off the seats with Windex,” says Zeig. “Vicky
cleaned the poster case and the glass doors because you couldn’t see
through all the dirt. After all that construction, he didn’t even pay
to have the theater properly cleaned.” Zeig says the theater staff was
no help whatsoever, especially in the area where it counts most —
answering questions for patrons. “People were walking up to the booth
and asking if the theater was open,” she recalls, “and the girl in the
booth just didn’t know what to tell them. She didn’t know when the
first show or last show was; she didn’t know if the concession stand
would be open.”

A visit to the theater by this reporter that day (Saturday, December 12)
confirmed things were not what filmgoers would expect. Many of the
theaters’ seats were covered with sawdust. A new set of stairs inside
the theater had no overhead lighting, making it nearly impossible to
even see the steps. Emergency exits were not lit. There were no
mirrors in the bathrooms and the floor in the men’s room was wet and
slippery. Construction areas were walled off only by boards propped
across doorways and there were no signs warning patrons away from work
areas. Also, the work permit was not displayed.

Arentz spoke to this reporter briefly on two occasions, for the first
time on the day this story was being filed at The Village Voice, where
it was originally scheduled to appear. Arentz made only two comments:
“We have nothing to apologize for. There is no story here.” He then
hung up and called The Voice, where the story was eventually pulled.

During the week of Christmas, this reporter left several messages on the
answering machine at Arentz’s office informing him that indieWIRE had
picked up the story and was inviting comment. During a brief
conversation on Monday, January 4, Arentz stated his belief that
indieWIRE and this reporter specifically, were “being used by Sande Zeig
and a filmmaker who cannot deal with the fact that nobody wants to see
her film.”

“We had delays because I was being hassled by the electric contractor,”
he continued. “And Sande was aware of those problems and I assume she
passed them on to her filmmaker.” Asked about the construction debris,
work permit and safety issues like the missing lights, Arentz became
incensed. “You are getting into areas you have no business in. These
are operational things. We have a work permit. What are you trying to
do? I have no comment. This is all no comment.” Arentz then ended the
call, refusing to even hear any further questions. Two subsequent
attempts to secure Arentz’s participation in this report were

indieWIRE has subsequently confirmed from public records that Cinema
Village does indeed have a proper work permit. But according to Elyse
Fink, a spokesperson for the New York City Buildings Department, the
permit should always be displayed “to reassure patrons the work is legal
and being properly conducted.” If the permit cannot be displayed, she
added, it must be made available to anyone who asks to see it.

“It’s hard to comment definitively, because I don’t know what
establishment you’re talking about in particular,” she said, “But
generally speaking, not having lights over stairways and not having
emergency exits properly lit are code violations. It might not be
enough to shut you down, if you made other arrangements, like had
attendants present at all times with flashlights or something similar.”

Except for a man who tore tickets and the attendant at the box office,
there were no other attendants at Cinema Village that day. A subsequent
visit to the theater, on December 16, found conditions much improved.
There was still only a single theater open, but it was clean and
well-lit, as were the steps leading down to the rest rooms, which seemed
to have become fully functional. (A more recent visit, on January 10,
found conditions in the two theaters to be normal.)

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