Roll it! Three art houses are poised to expand

Film Forum on W. Houston St. recently closed for a renovation that will see a new screen added in the current site of a loading dock, fenced off with green construction fencing, above. Photo by Gary Shapiro

BY GARY SHAPIRO | Greenwich Village has long been the embodiment of bohemia, and movie theaters are part of the Village’s cultural soul. An empty back lot or a loading dock hardly sound cinematic, but they are settings where change is afoot for Greenwich Village movie theaters.

Greenwich Village itself has played a role in the history of film. Author Steve Massa noted that the Biograph Company moved to a brownstone at 11 E. 14th St., where D.W. Griffith began directing in 1908, introducing many actors, such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.

Ben Davis, author of the remarkable volume “Repertory Movie Theaters of New York: Havens for Revivals, Indies and the Avant-Garde, 1960-1994” (McFarland), has extensively researched the history of art cinemas in Manhattan.

As Davis sees it, the rise of art houses began in the mid-to-late 1940s with the importation of Italian neorealist films. Urbane audiences were turning from the frothy artificiality of Hollywood films to the adult realism of foreign films. The 1960s experienced an explosion of avant-garde, experimental filmmaking, especially in New York and on the West Coast. From the 1970s to the mid-1980s, repertory movie theaters — consisting of nonprofits like Film Forum and Anthology Film Archives and for-profits like the Bleecker Street Cinema — flourished, mostly in the Village and on the Upper West Side. As Davis sees it, the soaring real estate prices of the late 1980s, however, caused most of the for-profit repertory cinemas to fold, leaving the nonprofits to carry on repertory programming.

But as Davis notes, the commercial repertory cinema is on the rise again, such as at the IFC Center, Quad Cinema and Metrograph, some supported by wealthy owners, whom Davis says, “have the means to house their theaters in comfortable surroundings with amenities.” He said that smaller, edgier cinema programming is meanwhile flourishing largely in Brooklyn.

At this moment, several art cinemas in the Village are actively expanding.

Film Forum is turning an adjoining loading dock on Houston St. into a fourth movie screening room. It will offer more flexibility to its first-run indie and foreign films, as well as a repertory calendar packed with classics, retrospectives and revivals.

Located between Sixth Ave. and Varick St., the theater recently closed for this project. It will reopen later this summer, when it will aptly feature “Rendezvous in July” as part of its repertory programming.

“The expansion will allow us to keep films on screen longer when interest is strong,” said Karen Cooper, Film Forum’s president and director.

The film “I Am Not Your Negro,” notably, could have gone on for months. Showing what a difference an extra screen will make, Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s director of repertory programming, was able to add 60 Ingmar Bergman screenings when a screen happened to have an opening in its schedule.

More than $4 million of the $5 million needed for the construction has been raised, Cooper said. Matthew Broderick has recently joined the theater’s distinguished board.

Keeping a theater going decade after decade requires determination.

“The way you survive for 50 years is you keep putting one foot in front of another,” Cooper said.

The renovation will also allow better sight lines, better raked seating and more legroom.

“My husband is six two. You come to appreciate that taller people need to stretch out a bit,” Cooper explained. While some existing seats will be removed to create more legroom, thanks to the additional screen, Film Forum will see a net gain of 60 seats.

The additional screen may allow the theater to increase its “Film Forum Jr.” weekend youth programing.

“They are our future,” Cooper said. “It shows them that cinema can be more than car crashes and Cinderella romance.” When comedian Bob Greenberg introduced a Three Stooges program in March, he warned the youngsters in the audience not to try antics like eye-poking, head-bonking or face-slapping at home. One kid piped up, “Why not?” The audience roared.

Repertory programmer Goldstein, whom film critic J. Hoberman once called “New York film culture’s indispensable man,” told The Villager that he first saw an Ingmar Bergman movie at age 15, mistakenly thinking it was an Ingrid Bergman film.

“Good programming connects with the audience and conveys passion for film,” Goldstein said. “I want the audience to realize that there are people running this theater, and we’re engaged in it as much as they are.”

In a pamphlet about five years ago that celebrated Goldstein’s first 25 years as repertory programmer at Film Forum, one discovers that, in 1993, legendary Italian director Frederico Fellini illustrated and designed an illycaffè espresso cup to commemorate his retrospective at Film Forum. The cinema also hosted a Fay Wray scream-alike contest to accompany the 75th anniversary of the 1933 premiere of “King Kong.” The Film Forum’s large poster-sized repertory calendar is so iconic it has been in movies itself.

Film historian Foster Hirsch said that Film Forum sets the bar for all other repertory programming in the country.

“It is the most distinguished and has the greatest track record,” he said.

Goldstein over the years has presided over a cavalcade of actors, directors and archivists who come to participate in the theater’s programming, including the Coen brothers, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Bracken, Jules Dassin, Bette Comden and Adolph Green. Hirsch has interviewed Sidney Lumet, Fay Wray, Leslie Caron, Claire Bloom, Arlene Dahl, Tab Hunter and Jane Powell and others to sold-out audiences.

To residential neighbors’ chagrin, the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals recently approved an expansion project for the IFC Center at Sixth Ave. and W. Third St. Photo by Gary Shapiro

Meanwhile, the IFC Center, at Sixth Ave. and W. Third St., owned by Friedland Properties, is also on its way to an expansion. The city’s Board of Standards and Appeals has decided to grant a variance to allow the cinema to expand onto its residentially zoned rear lot on Cornelia St. The IFC proposal would result in a total of 10 theaters. The exit on Cornelia St. would be an emergency egress only.

However, unlike the Film Forum plan, the IFC one — located in a more residential area — has been facing opposition. Speaking at a B.S.A. hearing in March, attorney Stuart Klein, representing the Friends of Cornelia St. Coalition — a group fighting the expansion — said IFC had not answered a number of questions, including why it needed to expand in the first place.

Al Pacino in the new Quad Bar in the Quad Cinema a couple of months ago, when the Village movie house was doing a retrospective of his acting work on both stage and screen. The Quad Cinema is marking the one-year anniversary of its renovation, but the new Quad Bar came in just a bit later. The artist Saul Jean-Charles drew the picture of Pacino in the photo. Photo by Mettie Ostrowski

The IFC proposal also calls for adding four residential apartments on the Cornelia St. side, which would be on the second through fifth floors. Dan Leigh, co-chairperson of the Central Village Block Association, predicted the units’ small size would likely cause higher turnover. But Marjorie Perlmutter, the B.S.A. chairperson, said at the March hearing that they are in the size range of other apartments in the Village.

Leigh raised a larger concern when he asked, “If the IFC ever vacated, what would we be left with?” The fear of a potential future big-box store on the site looms large.

A statement by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation that was read at the hearing noted, “If the Cornelia St. side were to ever be used for anything other than emergency egress, the proposed development would have a profoundly negative impact.”

Perlmutter responded that any change granting access to Cornelia St. other than an emergency egress would have to come back to the B.S.A. for approval. Leif Arntzen, a leader of Friends of Cornelia St. Coalition, said, “IFC has had every opportunity and all the community support it could ever need to develop the property and still respect the residential zoning on Cornelia St. — but has only gone so far as to do that when they are left with no other choice by the B.S.A.”

Nevertheless, according to Leigh, C.V.B.A. is satisfied with the decision that allows for residential apartments on Cornelia.

“We have always said that IFC is an important part of the neighborhood,” he said.

The process heads next to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission since the site is within the South Village Historic District, designated in 2010.

I.F.C. had no comment for this article.

Upcoming shows at IFC in June include a documentary on fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, a screening of “The Big Lebowski” and much more. IFC is also the home of the Split Screen Festival which celebrates the art of television. In addition, IFC is a hub for the DOC NYC festival, at which Hillary Clinton, Eric Clapton, Martin Scorsese and Susan Sarandon have participated in previous years. IFC offers educational outreach with free tickets for school groups and K-12 teachers.

At Anthology Film Archives, a café and a library are part of renovations designed by Bone / Levine Architects. According to its Web site, Anthology will begin renovations in spring 2019 and then rededicate its building at E. Second St. and Second Ave. in fall 2020, to coincide with the organization’s 50th anniversary.

The name “Anthology” in metal mesh will run across the front side of the top of the building. When complete, the ground floor will have a new Heaven and Earth Cafe, and the fourth floor will hold its public library, above which will be a rooftop terrace. Last August, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the cafe and library plans. Anthology also plans to add a new elevator and new areas for archival holdings.

Anthology Film Archives on E. Second St. plans a renovation that will include a new cafe, a publicly accessible library and a rooftop deck. Courtesy Anthology Film Archives

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” No one fits this more aptly than Jonas Mekas, Anthology’s 95-year-old Lithuanian-born founder, probably the most consequential cineaste in the Village in the last half-century.

“Anthology remains forever eclectic, presenting historic and contemporary works that range from canonical to completely unknown,” said filmmaker Andrew Lampert, Anthology’s former archivist. “They offer first-run features, thematic series that lean more on conceptual ideas than auteurist overviews, and decidedly avant-garde programs of short films where the artists are often in person.” Lampert added that no other cinema shows “such stamina” in accomplishing what Anthology does.

Want to see the famed Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” shooting script? You’ll be able to step into Anthology’s library that will allow access to a trove of holdings relating to figures such as avant-garde filmmaker and Village resident Maya Deren and mystically eccentric filmmaker and musicologist Harry Smith.

Anthology has artistic help in high places. Its Friends of the Completion Project includes arts luminaries Patti Smith, Peter Bogdanovich, Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass.

Quad Cinema, on W. 13th St. between Fifth and Sixth Aves., reached its first anniversary in its new incarnation on April 14.

Quad Cinema in its new incarnation reached its first anniversary on April 14. But this past July, it also opened a popular adjacent bar on the site of a former light-fixtures store. The ambiance reflects Quad Cinema owner Charles S. Cohen’s desire to create the experience of a 1950s Greenwich Village diner.

“A lot of old-timers fully see this,” said bartender Jon Peacock. It has a tin ceiling and tiled floor bearing the words “Quad Bar.” One can only enter from the cinema, not from the street, giving it an intimacy.

C. Mason Wells, the Quad’s director of repertory programming, said, “The social aspect of moviegoing is as important as the movies themselves.”

Added Peacock, “The Quad Bar is a place where people discuss the movie they’ve just seen, the movie they’re about to see, or just film in general.”

In one recent loss of an art house, Landmark Sunshine Cinema, which opened in 2001, closed on Jan. 21. East End Capital and K Property Group bought the building last May for $31.5 million. Plans for the site, formerly home to a church, sports club and nickelodeon, are for a nine-story office building. Landmark Theatres has opened another cinema, though, at the west end of W. 57th St. called The Landmark at 57 West.

How unique is Greenwich Village as a movie market? A report by the Motion Picture Association of America in 2017 found that overall attendance at U.S. cinemas was at a 23-year low.

Yet, Film Forum’s Goldstein said that every time a new technology has come along, such as radio, TV or VHS, many have thought it would be the end of moviegoing.

“That hasn’t happened,” he said. What makes art houses enjoyable, he said, is that “you can find kindred spirits.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *