New York institute broadens film repertory

One of the boldest moves in Gotham exhibition this decade is taking shape along a quiet stretch of West 23rd Street.

The Clearview Chelsea West Cinemas, a somewhat unlikely center of gravity for the film biz in recent years, has been acquired by the School of Visual Arts. The school, which signed a 26-year lease to operate the site, is renaming it the Visual Arts Theater and renovating inside and out under the guidance of noted designer Milton Glaser.

Tonight’s premiere of “Cook County” in the Gen Art Film Festival, will mark the end of the 1963 theater’s days as a commercial house. After several months of rehab, a new repertory/special event venue will hope to satiate the screen-starved Manhattan industry.

“It’s great. There’s nowhere to go but up in terms of repertory cinema in New York,” said Kent Jones, a contributing editor at Film Comment and assistant programmer at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. “When I got to town (a generation ago) there were dozens of them.”

SVA’s goals are different from those of IFC, which turned the old Waverly into a largely firstrun site that opened in 2005. But they are also notably more ambitious than those of NYU, which bought the former Art Theater on Eighth Street and turned it into classrooms and smaller screening rooms that seldom offer public shows.

“Some people were disappointed when we didn’t close a deal for the Gramercy Theater, which is now the Blender Theater at Gramercy, because that’s closer to the core of our campus” on the eastern end of 23rd Street, said SVA spokesman Michael Grant. “But in terms of the physical space it seems to me that it works out even better.”

The 20,000-square-foot Visual Arts will maintain two auditoriums that currently seat 350 and 550. They will be upgraded with digital and 3-D projection gear as well as 35mm and even 70mm projectors.

Though it may not have quite the national profile of NYU or Columbia, SVA has spent aggressively in recent years to advertise itself, boosting undergrad enrollment this decade by 25% and the graduate ranks by 45%. Notable film alums include “Zodiac” DP Harris Savides, thesp Jared Leto and animator Bill Plympton.

The new theater gives SVA a presence in a fashionable downtown nabe favored by party planners and film bizzers largely due to logistics.

“I always liked doing red carpets there because there’s not a lot of foot traffic and the two screens are on one level,” said Donna Dickman, VP of publicity for Focus Features, which has preemed star-studded films such as “Evening” and “Broken Flowers” at the site. “In L.A., everyone drives, so there are a lot of feasible places to have big premieres. But here, you need subway access and easy logistics, which that place definitely has.”

Industry screenings will still definitely happen at the Visual Arts. SVA has also been in talks with the major guilds as well as Women in Film, the Cinematheque Francaise, the Museum of the Moving Image and the National Board of Review about partnerships.

For Clearview, a Cablevision subsid since 1998, the loss of the Chelsea West is minimal given the continuation of ops across Eighth Avenue of the Chelsea, a sister multiplex. The two sites had always been booked as a unit, so distribs often didn’t know where on 23rd Street they would be playing until opening day.

The Chelsea West has the 60s aesthetic of Clearview’s flagship Ziegfeld uptown, and indeed began its life as a single-screen house with a balcony and a large capacity.

Grant wasn’t able to speculate about the exact nature of programming, noting only that tie-ins were set with the Museum of the Moving Image. Gene Stavis, an SVA faculty member and onetime American rep for French film biggie Henri Langlois, will be the director of the theater.

International fests and series will definitely be a possibility, with spotlights on Iran, Turkey, Canada, Israel and France already under consideration.

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