Longtime New York cinephiles often keep track of city history through the prism of the openings and closings of their favorite movie houses.
In recent years, there have been far more of the latter, up to last month’s closing of the Ziegfeld Theater.
Yet, the city’s downtown art houses, from the IFC Center to Film Forum, are thriving, and starting Friday they’ll be joined by a newbie to the scene: The Metrograph, the Lower East Side’s first theater since the 1990s closure of the Essex on Grand Street.
Opening at 7 Ludlow St., between Canal and Hester streets, The Metrograph will specialize in independent and foreign films, as well as repertory fare on newly-found 35 mm prints.
It’s the brainchild of designer and filmmaker Alexander Olch, 39, who who lives in the neighborhood.
“I fell in love with filmmaking in large part due to the places I went to see movies when I was little,” Olch says. “When I was younger, there was still this old guard of theaters like the Beekman and the Plaza, where you walked in as an 8- or 10-year-old kid, you could tell there was something special with it. That in many ways started my love of cinema.”
The Metrograph’s artistic director and director of programming Jacob Perlin released Olch’s first feature, “The Windmill Movie,” through his distribution company The Film Desk in 2009, and the two of them conceived the new theater.
“What’s perfect about the neighborhood is that it has a very entrenched community that’s been here for a very long time and has now been without a movie theater, and it also seems to be booming,” he says. “We want to appeal to the people that are new to the neighborhood, but it’s also very important to make an effort to reach out to the people who’ve been here for a long time.”
So why hasn't a new movie theater (other than a Lincoln Center expansion) opened in Manhattan since 2005?
“I think the reason has a great deal to do with the same thing that everything in New York has a great deal to do with,” says Karen Cooper, director of the nonprofit Film Forum. “Real estate values.”
Downtown arthouses have found a way to buck the overall trend, with location playing a large factor in their success.
In 2005, the IFC Center took over the location of the New Waverly Theater, conveniently located right above the busy West 4th Street subway station, making it a destination for those from Manhattan and the outer boroughs as well as nearby NYU film students. Now, they’re planning an expansion from the current five theaters.
“We don’t really do anything from the studios and I think that’s the key to why we’ve been successful enough to expand,” IFC Center’s John Vanco says. “The rent and expense issue is also what’s driving us to double down and expand our space so we can keep doing more of what we’ve been doing at IFC Center. Audiences respect, admire and support theaters that program not based on what the studios are putting out there, but based on what are good movies and movies that are forgotten that need to be remembered.”
Cooper also notes that streaming and Netflix have created new challenges for existing movie theaters. “People can see movies very comfortably in their own home and it’s a very different experience. I prefer the theatrical experience on a big screen in a dark room with lots of other people but the convenience is something you have to acknowledge. That gives movie theaters tremendous competition.”
“I do think at the end of the day, going to the movies in a cinema is not a cryptic nostalgic pursuit,” Vanco adds. “It is something that human beings are hard-wired to enjoy and I don’t think just because there’s iTunes, it has much to do with people not going to the movies.”
Daniel Walber, a film enthusiast who writes about documentaries, is excited by the prospects of the Metrograph, which will also include a restaurant. “Classic documentaries don’t show up on repertory schedules all the time, so I’m particularly looking forward to the three new 35mm prints of Frederick Wiseman films.”