Last month the beloved single-screen institution the Ziegfeld Theater closed, yet another marker of how difficult it is to keep a small theater open in New York amidst competition from corporate chains such as AMC. But filmmaker Alexander Olch isn’t easily discouraged. He spent several years completing his first film, 2008’s “The Windmill Movie,” and while working with distributor Jake Perlin, he came up with the idea to open an independent theater in New York.
It took several years for it to come to fruition, but at Wednesday’s grand opening of Metrograph, a stylishly designed two-screen theater located in New York’s Lower East Side, Olch told Variety that while it was “a roller coaster, full of stops and starts” to get the theater open, he believes it will ultimately be a sound investment.
“When you really sit down to look at the numbers, at this particular scale, which is neither too huge nor too small, the math actually works out,” he says. “This is something that is a good business idea. Once we found the right space that fit our ambitions, it was possible to make this happen.”
As the big chains increasingly favor blockbuster releases, fans of small movies have grown used to watching indies via Netflix, but Olch isn’t worried about getting cinephiles off the couch.
“I think there was a lot of chatter when Seamless.com started that restaurants were going to go out of business because people were going to order food in all the time,” he says. “What is going on here is, people want to go out. In the same way that you can’t order food in all the time, you want to go to a restaurant, what we are doing is raising the cinema-going experience to the level that exists in other leisure activities.”
The programming booklet for the first two months is 64 pages long, which “is wonderful and absurd,” Olch says. Metrograph will feature both new films and repertoire fare, completely unknown films as well as special series like “Surrender to the Screen,” which will feature films that have important scenes set in cinemas, such as “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Taxi Driver.” Additionally, Metrograph will take part in the upcoming Lower East Side Film Festival.
But another key to the success of the Metrograph, Olch says, is that he and Perlin made sure it was worth dropping by even if you didn’t feel like watching a movie that day.
“There is a book store, there is a candy store, there is a restaurant open for breakfast and lunch, there is a skylight that’s open in the day — it’s a wonderful place to write if you’re a writer, it’s a wonderful place to do rough-cut screenings if you’re a director,” he says. “It’s a place that is very much populated by filmmakers as much as filmgoers, which is really going to add an electric energy, I think, to everything that is going on.”
True to Olch’s word, Wednesday’s premiere, which featured hors d’oeuvres and craft cocktails, was attended by directors including Noah Baumbach, John Waters and Jim Jarmusch, the latter of whom told Variety that the Metrograph reminded him of the cinema houses he loved going to while growing up in New York.
“Anthology and Film Forums, the old Bleeker Street and Carnegie Cinemas, Theatre 80 St Marks… I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you if not for them,” Jarmusch said. “I’ve inhabited them since I was a teenager and searched for them and spent hours and hours of my life in them.”
A cross-section of indie film and comedy royalty at the opening included Willem Dafoe, Keegan -Michael Key, John Waters, Gretchen Mol, Ariel Schulman, Mike Birbiglia, David Cross, Sofia Coppola, James Murphy, Ryan Fleck, Amy Heckerling, Judah Friedlander and Dustin Hoffman.
One guest, Greta Gerwig, who will star in and direct her first film “Ladybird” this summer, said that the opening of Metrograph was especially important to her because when she first moved to New York, she regularly attended repertory screenings at Film Forum to learn more about cinema history, often taking in runs where several of a director’s key works would screen over the course of a week. “You feel like you own their career in a personal way.
“The first John Ford film I saw, it didn’t click, and I didn’t understand why he was such an incredible giant, and then I watched seven over the week, and by the third or fourth, it dropped in, and I love that experience,” she said, “and I think it made me a better actor and hopefully a better filmmaker.”