David Schwartz Proved You Can Grow a Repertory Cinema Into a Behemoth

The exiting chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image looks back on a legacy of showing challenging movies to a growing audience.
David Schwartz
David Schwartz

When David Schwartz started working as a curator at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, there was no Netflix or MoviePass: Cinema faced a different sort of change. It was 1985, and with the twin effects of home video and New York real estate prices, some of the best arthouses in town had gone out business. “It wasn’t as crowded a scene as it is now,” said Schwartz, who ended his tenure as the museum’s chief curator last month. “There was definitely a need for more alternative programming at the time we opened.”

Over the decades, Schwartz met that challenge with a cinephilic feast of repertory programming and daring avant-garde offerings that did much to cultivate audiences through the decades. Nevertheless, the specifics of Schwartz’s departure are murky: Some sources said he received a two-week notice after 33 years at the museum, while others said it was by mutual agreement.

Both Schwartz and the museum declined to comment, but Schwartz said he expected to remain involved in some museum programming in the future. The amicable 58-year-old said he was looking at the change as an opportunity. “I just thought, like, either I’m going to be there forever, or leave and try to do new things,” he said. “That’s the best I can say about it.”

Schwartz’s apparent dismissal has resulted in a surge of appreciation for his work, including a special award for career achievement from the New York Film Critics Circle. [Editor’s Note: The author is the NYFCC chairman.] His history with the museum also provides a window into the evolving challenges of curating work that extends beyond commercial offerings.

A film graduate from Purchase College, he directed a student film that landed in the Student Academy Award finals in New York. That led to an internship with the museum, then located in the East Coast studio lot of Paramount Pictures. (It later became Kaufman Astoria Studios.) When that became a full-time job programming the small Zukor screening room, he had tremendous leeway to advocate for non-commercial offerings. “My interest was really independent and experimental film,” he said. “If you came on a Friday night to see a double feature, you could go through the galleries. It was a microcosm of what the museum became.”

Schwartz’s first program was “First Person Documentary,” a series surveying non-fiction projects in which filmmakers made themselves a part of the story. The series included the world premiere of Ross McElwee’s seminal “Sherman’s March.” When the museum moved to a new building in 1988, one with state-of-the-art equipment that could screen a range of celluloid formats, Schwartz assembled a massive survey of independent and experimental titles from the past decade. “At the time, I think we really had a feeling that we would just find an audience for what we were interested in,” Schwartz said.

He learned to manage expectations. “With avant-garde programs, you pretty much know that you’re not going to get more than 70 people in an audience, no matter who you are in New York,” he said. “We just programmed accordingly by using the smaller theater. The audience just changes from film to film, series to series. It’s not like we have a steady audience that will come out and see anything we do.”

Instead, in a move that anticipated the one-size-fits-all ethos of today’s exhibition market, the museum’s catholic tastes cultivated an international reputation. Clint Eastwood dropped by during those early years, “just visiting,” Schwartz recalled. “He heard about the museum and wanted to see it.” Schwartz began curating conversations with major filmmakers like Mike Nichols as well as lesser-known luminaries like cinematographer Néstor Almendros, the subject of an early retrospective. Over the years, major filmmaker overviews became a hallmark of Schwartz’s programming, from Chantal Akerman to Chuck Jones.

Schwartz’s 1989 series on Ken Jacobs helped bring a new level of appreciation for the experimental filmmaker, whose work extends back to the sixties. Similar retrospectives on Kenji Mizoguchi, Hou Hsiao Hsien, and Tsai Ming-liang over-performed. “We had packed houses for them, because those were films that were just not in distribution in the U.S.,” Schwartz said. “I think people really had a sense that this could be their one chance to see these films.”

“Out 1”

He cited a 2006 series on New Wave icon Jacques Rivette as a major highlight, in part because it enabled the museum to screen the director’s fabled 13-hour “Out 1” for the first time in the United States. “We showed it over two days and had a full house,” Schwartz said. “It was just such a great experience.”

When the museum relaunched in 2011, annual attendance tripled to over 200,000 and Astoria’s booming population further informed the programming’s character. Schwartz recently hired a family programmer to handle matinee shows, while associate curator Eric Hynes regularly shows new releases for limited runs on an ad hoc basis. “The Astoria neighborhood has changed a lot, so we were able to draw enough of an audience from our neighborhood,” Schwartz said. “Cinephiles were a part of our audience, but we were also programming for families. It’s always a balancing act, coming up with a mix that’s going to work.”

However, he acknowledged a key distinction between programming to a local audience in one of the major moviegoing cities in the world, and the more daunting challenge faced by entities programming for wider audiences. He considered the death of FilmStruck; with a subscriber base under 100,000, parent company Warner Media canceled it.

“That’s a lot of people, but it doesn’t seem like that to a major corporation,” Schwartz said. “I think FilmStruck was being held to this impossible standard. We always had the luxury at the museum of trying to get a few hundred people, and I just feel that in New York City there’s enough people around to get a decent audience.” Moreover, he added, “I often showed films where I felt like we could get an audience for one screening, but it would be a real challenge to distribute these movies.”

He emphasized that quality presentation is essential for repertory cinemas’ theatrical prospects to remain relevant. “When I started going to repertory theaters in the late 1970s, the prints were generally horrible,” he said. “It was very often 16mm prints, and the distributors didn’t care about making beautiful prints. If you wanted to see an Ingmar Bergman film, you only had one choice.” Schwartz praised Metrograph and MOMA for committing to screening repertory titles on 35mm whenever possible. “The New York programming scene is so competitive right now, so rich,” Schwartz said. “It’s actually one of the best periods I can remember. But audiences really expect that.”

He has several plans for the immediate future, including a new podcast on film books launching this month and a March program at Metrograph about animator George Griffin. “It is kind of exciting to just be on my own and coming up with projects,” he said.

He remained passionate about the value of exhibition spaces for the future of the movies. “It’s so important to have a live experience, where there can be discussion and people coming together,” he said. “Experiencing films socially is so important, because it’s so tempting to just watch films on your computer.”

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