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How Film Forum’s Expansion Plans Could Impact Indie Distribution

The NYC mainstay will offer not just a new screen for indie and speciality screenings, but further possibilities for smaller films hoping to break out.

Peter Aaron/Esto

New York City’s movie-going options are getting even bigger, thanks to the news that Film Forum is set to not only renovate its three screens, but to add a fourth screen to its fold. The venerated theater — known for decades as a haven for specialty releases and repertory programming — will undergo a simultaneous renovation of its current screens and the addition of a new theater. Stephen Tilly, who designed Film Forum’s earlier incarnation on Watts Street (alongside Alan Buchsbaum), is the architect in charge of this project.

The news is exciting for New York cinephiles, but has a potentially even greater value for the specialty film marketplace.

Film Forum was founded in 1970, and made its mark as an independent theater equally invested in NYC-centric premieres, repertory programming, and new features alike. (A glance at its upcoming lineup speaks well to its depth of programming, including planned showings of newer films like “Nobody’s Watching” and “Happy End,” alongside one of their signature large-scale retrospectives of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries and a series of Louise Brooks silent films, all accompanied by live piano.)

The addition of a single new screen will likely have a marginal impact on the overall movie-going scene in the city and beyond, but the specialty market is a different story. A fourth screen doesn’t just mean more space for additional openings, but also the possibility of successful films earning extended runs at a theater that used to be even slimmer on its precious screen space.

“The Film Forum remains committed to showing the finest in specialized film, and often go out of their way to play films that are a tougher commercial challenge but can find success through the incredible operation,” said veteran Michael Tuckman, whose upcoming titles at the theater include Frederick Wiseman’s “Ex Libris — The New York Public Library.”

Tuckman was also enthusiastic about the possibilities of more screens — and thus more screen time — for the sort of films that Film Forum has made its bread and butter.

“This extra screen will allow for the theater and distirbutors alike to enjoy the fruits of their collective efforts, affording more screen space for films to play longer,” Tuckman said. “Their commitment on their calendar every two weeks (assuring a film two weeks in this day and age is novel into itself) ties them in to hard ‘final’ dates for some films, so the extra screen will let them play longer.”

New York City’s arthouse scene has been going through something of a revival in recent years  from last year’s opening of the Metrograph, which marked the first independent theater to hit the scene in over a decade, to the newly relaunched Quad Cinema, which splashed out a renovation that opened in April. Elsewhere, the Alamo Drafthouse, still new to the Brooklyn scene with its latest location, is planning a new theater in Manhattan, and Brooklyn’s long-beleaguered Pavilion Theater is getting a makeover, courtesy of its new owners at Nitehawk Cinema.

Meanwhile, arthouse chain Landmark recently announced its intention to build an ambitious new movie theater complex scheduled to open in the spring of 2017 on the far West Side of Manhattan, including an eight-screen cinema, event space, and private bar. Downtown, the luxurious iPic offers over-the-top accommodations, plus an exclusive run on Netflix features that require awards-qualifying runs.

Not all the news is good, however, as the Landmark’s own Sunshine will close its doors in January 2018, and the IFC Center is dealing with neighborhood pushback when it comes to their own expansion plans — the theater’s website is currently asking patrons to share their support with city officials.

The struggle to maintain staples of New York’s cultural scene is one not lost on Film Forum’s team. “Too often, New York landmarks disappear, only to be replaced by nail salons and chain drug stores,” said the theater’s director, Karen Cooper. “Happily, New Yorkers are committed to seeing films that take risks and break the mold, as well as discovering movie history. They will continue to have those opportunities at Film Forum, in an even more gracious setting.”

The new expansion is part of the Film Forum 50 initiative, which looks ahead to the theater’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2020. In addition to the updated screens (plus news seats, improved legroom, and better sightlines) and new theater, Film Forum is also working to grow its sizable endowment. That all tallies to $6 million, of which more than half has already been raised. Construction on the project will begin in early 2018, when the theater will close for May and June, and re-open on July 4.

Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann.

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