Alexander Olch, didn’t “fall in love with movies watching them on my computer.” Instead, the founder of the new Metrograph theater on the Lower East Side grew up grew up going to New York City’s Art Deco movie palaces like The Ziegfield, The Paris, and The Beekman, places that, as he puts it, “When you walk in the door, you know something special happens here.”
I’ve been noticing people who come here who you never find at the Angelika or the Quad…now is a really good time to be a film buff in NYC.” –Tim Chung
While New York is lucky that arthouse stalwarts like the Film Forum, the Angelika and Anthology Film Archives are still showing films, the number of repertory theaters and movie houses in general has declined significantly since the days of the Bleecker Street Cinema and the 8th Street Playhouse (which we have to thank for the tradition of midnight Rocky Horror screenings). First television, then multiplexes and now, Netflix have all played a part in the downward trend.
But a second wave of indie theaters is luring us off our couches. Through their brilliant curation, the social component of pairing cult classics with cocktails, and the draw of seeing works of art in their intended form, we’ve entered a new golden era of theaters that aims to elevate the movie-going experience.
Metrograph, along with Syndicated in Bushwick, the soon to be open branch of the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn, and Williamsburg’s Nitehawk, are the forefront of this cinematic trend. Nitehawk owner Matthew Viragh told the New York Times in 2011 that his theater is part of “a kind of trend in the film exhibition business, to get you out of your house and into a theater.” He believed in this idea enough to lobby the New York State legislature to pass a bill allowing alcohol in movie theaters. Even five years ago, he could see the group viewing trends that would transform Videology in Williamsburg from a video store to a bar that shows television shows and movies, often in conjunction with parties and games, like their popular television and movie trivia nights where you can show your love for everything from Titanic to Parks and Recreation.
What started out with the enjoyable novelty of being able to order a burger and a cocktail while watching a B horror movie from the 80s at the Nitehawk has evolved into a wide variety of cinema experiences, all of which break out of the over-priced popcorn model of the multiplex.
Syndicated, started by former film location scout Tim Chung, is only 50 seats. Still, those quick enough to snag tickets can sit on cushy banquettes with tables in front, and order off the in-theater menu which includes buttermilk fried chicken, a burger, and two varieties of loaded tater tots. Having servers tip-toeing and ducking in front of and around the seats and screen is a tiny bit distracting (the same holds true at Nitwhawk), but a small price to pay for $3 tickets ($6 for a double feature), and the opportunity drink a delicious beer while watching A League of Their Own. If you’d rather not eat and watch at the same time, visit the adjoining bar and 70-seat restaurant, which is bigger than the theater, and often screens award shows and shows like Broad City, in a less formal setting.
“I don’t think any two theaters offer the same type of experiences,” says Chung. “Plus, I’ve been noticing people who come here who you never find at the Angelika or the Quad…now is a really good time to be a film buff in NYC.”
Syndicated doesn’t show first run movies–the programming is a combination of the best of recent indie releases (for less than they cost on Amazon Prime, generally), and cult classics from the 80s onward. April filmgoers could watch Tangerine, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Trainwreck, among others from 2015.
Chung seemed particularly excited about the opportunity to do “deep dives on directors…I think there’s something interesting in diving into an oeuvre. Dissecting a filmmaker’s style,” he explained in a phone interview. To that end, Sofia Coppola and Paul Thomas Anderson will feature prominently on the schedule in the next few weeks. Not going through the big studios and distribution companies means Chung can keep the ticket prices low, that he and his partners can “create a place that film buffs/movie loves can access. We want to have a wide range of audiences. That’s why we have $3 tickets. [We] want parents to bring kids to see movies that they loved too.”
Across the river, Metrograph is tucked onto a quiet section of Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. Of the new crop of theaters, it bears the most in common with New York’s classic arthouse cinemas–film nerd gems directed by Fassbinder and Goddard graced the program during Metrograph’s first months in business, and the eclectic mix–Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Princess Mononoke, Gimme Shelter and The Gauntlet–directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, are all on the schedule for the next week–makes you wonder why you can never find anything to watch on Netflix when there are so many good movies in the world.
Drawing on his background in fashion, Olch designed everything from the (very comfortable) chairs and couches in the upstairs restaurant and bar, to the lightbulbs, the terrazzo floors, and reclaimed materials from the former Domino Sugar factory to make the seats. The aesthetic feels like an airier version of a classic movie palace meets industrial warehouse. The theaters have excellent sightlines, comfortable (and reserved!) seats.
At $15, the ticket prices are considerably more than Syndicated, but on par with those for multiplexes, none of which allow you the opportunity to browse in the in-house bookstore, or get a drink or a meal in the same building (the restaurant and bar are opening in May). Olch hopes that the bar and restaurant can be draws on their own. In the best possible scenario, he says, “the next great American screenplay gets written [in the bar] upstairs.” Sitting in the sun-drenched space on an Olch designed couch, it’s hard not to believe him.