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It Takes the Village: Exhibiting Independent Cinema in Lower Manhattan

By Susan Morris

From Jeppe Ronde's 'The Swenkas,' which screens at the Film Forum November 9-15. Photo: Seventh Art Releasing.

Walking toward the new IFC Center in the West Village, I passed the site of the old Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the mainstays of independent exhibition that closed in 1990 after 30 years in operation. It reminded me of the days when one felt like part of a club that met in a member's oversized, shabby living room.

In contrast, the IFC Center is a plush, highly designed, velvet-and-brick womb, with high-end projection ranging from 35mm to HD Digital. It is the latest entry in a landscape of increased and improved exhibition for independent film in Manhattan below 14th Street. While Uptown may boast Lincoln Plaza, the newly revived Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, the Walter Reade at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, Makor Screening Room and the Metro Twin, downtown is speckled with long-lasting cinemas and upstarts.

The IFC Center joins the ranks of Film Forum, Cinema Village, Anthology Film Archives, Landmark Sunshine, Two Boots Pioneer, Quad and the Angelika, along with a sprinkling of commercial multiplexes at Village East and Regal Union Square, totaling approximately 30 screens. This trend seems counterintuitive to statistics tracking decreased movie attendance and more screens in fewer locations, but the growth of independent cinemas may be particular to the characteristics of New York City, with its compact living spaces and active street life, and to the more limited opportunities to see this fare elsewhere. And all these theaters understand that the key to their success is to develop audience trust, where the venue transcends the slate; the viewer comes simply because that cinema has put its imprimatur on a film.

IFC Center

Vice president and general manager John Vanco describes the IFC Center as the "bricks and mortar home of the Independent Film Channel," whose parent company, Rainbow Media, runs the cable network, a film distribution and production unit and a video-on-demand service. The Center is housed in what was the Waverly Theater, and its architect, Larry Bogdanow, is married to Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Deborah Schaffer (Witness to War; Fire from the Mountain).

Vanco is mindful of his New York audience: "This is a city that appreciates something put on just for them," he says, reflecting his desire to have audiences be more than just passive viewers. So, the IFC Center is conceived as a focal point for the film community. In addition to three screens, there are two digital edit suites, a bar, café and a meeting area. Short films, rather than annoying advertisements, precede the features, and live components such as filmmakers interacting with audiences are incorporated with series such as Movie Night, with guest curators like rocker/poet Patti Smith, Weekend Classics and a Waverly Midnight program (in homage to the Waverly's long-running midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show). The Center is working with IFC's television programming, presenting the series At the IFC Center and, possibly in the future, doing a parallel series to a spaghetti western season, for example. All these activities may be enhanced by joint university film programs (discussions are underway with Columbia University, the School of Visual Arts and New York University). If the Center succeeds here, other IFC Centers around the country could follow.

Vanco hopes to show "more docs per square inch" than any other New York City venue; early offerings have been DA Pennebaker's classic Dont Look Back, Andrew Douglas' Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus and Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare. The Center's star-studded advisory board includes Errol Morris. Vanco emphasizes that documentary will be integrated into the programming when there are good films, rather than filling an "affirmative action" quota for nonfiction.

With its programming, approach to audience and desire to mine the periphery, Vanco says the IFC Center is "masquerading as a nonprofit."

Film Forum

On both these counts, Vanco is clearly rubbing shoulders with the gold standard for independent cinema in New York, Film Forum. Film Forum defines itself as the only autonomous nonprofit cinema in New York. There are other nonprofits like Anthology Film Archives, which have the multiple functions of preservation, study and exhibition; museums such as Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History, which present regular screening programs and, respectively, the New Directors/New Films festival (with the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival; or cultural complexes such as Lincoln Center, home of the Walter Reade Theater and the New York Film Festival--but Film Forum lives and dies as an exhibitor. American independent and foreign art films change every two weeks, and are shown only if they are exclusive New York theatrical premieres.

Director Karen Cooper says that easily more than 50 percent of what screens at Film Forum are documentaries, and proudly asserts that she and programmer Mike Maggiore show more documentaries than any facility in the country. Cooper's commitment to nonfiction was evident from the first film she programmed in 1972--Asylum by Peter Robinson, on RD Laing's theories on therapy, madness and sanity. She says Film Forum can take risks because its bottom line is quality, not dollars--although the organization operates in the black.

Film Forum's 35-year run is attributable to aggressively promoting its films with the same tools as commercial cinema--well-produced press materials, calendars, mailers and press screenings--as well as the long-standing support of The New York Times, which has been covering Film Forum's showings since the 1970s. What started in 1970 with a single projector, 50 folding chairs and a budget of $19,000 has evolved into a three-screen cinema with 275,000 annual attendees, 55 employees, 4,600 dues-paying members and a $4.1 million budget.

If Cooper and Maggiore are interested in a film, lack of distribution will not prevent Film Forum from taking it--a policy that is echoed by the IFC Center and Cinema Village. In many cases, a screening at Film Forum may be the rare chance to see a film, since the scarce print might be shipped back to Europe, or the DVD release or airing on cable may happen too long after the Film Forum run, if at all. But then, a film might move to one of the city's other venues after its two-week run at Film Forum.

Cinema Village and The Quad Cinema

Cinema Village and The Quad Cinema are both survivors, long-standing venues for independent cinema, owned and operated independently. After its repertory cinema beginnings almost 40 years ago, Cinema Village favored an eclectic mix of Hong Kong cinema, Japanese cult films, animation, documentaries and American indie sleepers. A renovation and expansion to three screens in 2000 allowed more diverse programming, with emphasis on international and art films (Russian Ark), often with extended runs of films that stick (The Piano Teacher, 28 weeks). Programmer Ed Arentz wears another hat as a distributor at Empire Pictures, whose films might go to all the cinemas cited in this article-something other programmers such as Dan Talbot of Lincoln Plaza and Bruce Goldstein, the repertory programmer at Film Forum, do as well.

The Quad, in operation for more than 25 years, has carved out a niche for, among other independent work, gay and Jewish cinema. These worlds collided in Trembling Before G-d, Sandi Simcha Dubowski's 2001 film on gay Jews, which premiered at Film Forum, then had an extended run at The Quad.

Angelika Film Center

It has great programming, a central location on Houston Street (at the nexus of Soho and the Village and a large café) and it hosts screenings for the IFP Market. But with six problematic, long, cavern-like screening rooms cut with center aisles, the Angelika Film Center is the indispensable venue that everyone loves to hate. Launched in 1989, the Angelika has expanded to Houston and Dallas, Texas.

Landmark Sunshine & Two Boots Pioneer

Venturing east, the Landmark Sunshine, which opened in 2001, programs in the former Houston Hippodrome Yiddish vaudeville theater-cum-hardware-warehouse, built in 1898. The Landmark was the first New York venue to feature "first-run independent and foreign film as well as non-traditional studio programming," with all the comforts of the mammoth multiplexes-stadium seating, comfortable furniture and large screens. Located on Houston Street on a stretch that includes Yonah Schimmel's Knishes, Katz's Delicatessen and scores of trendy restaurants, shops and clubs, the Landmark Sunshine is emblematic of the eclectic mix of old and new worlds in this part of the city.

Two Boots Pioneer Theater on Avenue A and E. 3rd Street is a 99-seat theater that launched in 2000 and premiered its first program, The Blank Generation, about artists in the East Village and Lower East Side. Two Boots features independent premieres, revivals of classics, film festivals, special series and collaborations with film organizations, including IFP, CineWomen and Slamdance. Downstairs in its video rental facility, the Den of Cin, hosts gatherings of film groups. Started by Phil Hartman, owner of the Two Boots Pizza mini-chain and Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction performance space, and founder of the Howl! Festival of East Village Arts, the Pioneer is definitely "a brand-new, old-fashioned neighborhood art cinema."

Anthology Film Archives

Nearby in the former Second Avenue Courthouse in the East Village, Anthology Film Archives was founded by Jonas Mekas, the godfather of American avant-garde filmmaking. Anthology is committed to the principle that a great film must be seen many times, that the print must be the best possible and that viewing conditions be optimal. A core collection of "essential cinema" was culled to introduce viewers to the basic canon, to be rotated with newer selections. Anthology Film Archives was conceived as a "chamber museum" dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of American independent and avant-garde cinema and its precursors in European, Soviet and Japanese film.

Interestingly, the aforementioned programmers attribute the general drop in cinema attendance to the decline in the quality of commercial films, rather than to home theaters, cable television or DVDs. Their cinemas, on the other hand, have held steady with their audiences. For New Yorkers, leaving home to go to restaurants, the theater, museums, the park and, yes, the movies, is still a regular activity. And with a healthy choice for downtown New Yorkers, independent cinema is one of the rules rather than the exception. The audiences are not so much fragmented as galvanized by the critical mass of theaters offering independent fare.


Susan Morris is a producer, director and media consultant who has worked for TRIO, BBC, Bravo, IFC, WNYC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET/Thirteen and Condé Nast. She is currently producing media for the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.