Surrender to the Screen: Introducing the Metrograph, NYC’s New Temple of Cinephilia

Metrograph_Theater 1_Courtesy of Metrograph LLC_Photo by Takako Ida

Opening on Friday, March 4 after months of anticipation, the Metrograph Theater is the most significant addition to New York moviegoing culture in recent memory. Located at 7 Ludlow Street, just north of Canal, the Metrograph features two screens offering a mix of repertory and first-run programming; a bar and restaurant; and a carefully curated cinephile-skewing bookstore (alongside an already robust online film magazine, Edition).

The brainchild of filmmaker and men’s accessory designer Alexander Olch, the Metrograph is programmed by two universally respected members of NYC’s cinephile culture, Jake Perlin (formerly of BAM and elsewhere) and Aliza Ma (formerly of the Museum of the Moving Image). After the debut series, “Surrender to the Screen,” featuring classic and cult films about the moviegoing experience, the Metrograph has the complete Jean Eustache, underseen exploitation fave The Student Nurses, special events including Noah Baumbach’s fever-dream NYC double feature, Carol in 35mm with Todd Haynes, Ed Lachman and Christine Vachon in person; glorious Technicolor, and so, so much more. First-run programming, skewing to the indie side, will begin later in the month as well.

With its bespoke-ish design, all-star programming team and film-geeky blockbuster programming, the Metrograph arrives this weekend seemingly fully formed and already a vital part of New York’s cinephile culture. Via email, I asked Jake Perlin a few questions about the Metrograph’s identity, ideals, goals, and plans for the future.

1.Metrograph Staff_Courtesy of Metrograph LLC_Photo by Takako Ida_L to R - Aliza Ma, Alexander Olch, Jacob Perlin

Movie theaters are attempting in various ways to flourish within a culture with ever more mediums fighting for audience attention, for the sake of both financial survival and cultural cachet. It seems as though one strategy is to make moviegoing into an “event,” either through 3D Hollywood stuff or a Tarantino “roadshow,” or indie theaters offering in-theater dining and the Super Bowl; many friends and colleagues have advocated for touting the big-screen-and-celluloid experience as a way forward for repertory cinema. With the Metrograph offering a main theater with a balcony, and a nice restaurant; and the opening calendar featuring rarities like Eustache and Student Nurses, celebrity guest programmers like Noah Baumbach, and wall-to-wall classic films celebrating of the magic of movies in general and celluloid in particular, it seems like you’re putting your spin on event-based moviegoing, as way of advocating for the stuff you’re showing—is that a fair assessment? And if so, how much of an event can a night at the Metrograph be, going forward?

The film that is screening is the foundation of the program, and the event grows out of that. So, we all thought Carol was one of the great films of 2015, knew there was a 35mm print we could screen and that Ed Lachman was available to attend. So from there the evening just came together—and then Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes were able to join too, and then there is an event. To make it a special event, and coordinate for the filmmakers and the print, which is a way I imagine few people have seen it, is a way for us to say “This film is a masterpiece, we all know it now, so why wait?”

Student Nurses is a film that for years has only been available in beat-up, faded prints. To see it that way one can still sense it is a major film, but to send the message, to people who don’t know the film, of how significant we believe it to be and that it was a two-year process to get the film restored, having Stephanie Rothman here from Los Angeles and screening the film for a week, is a way for us to compound our interest in the film.

But for the shows we don’t have special guests, or are screening a new print, the theater itself provides areas to explore, be it the restaurant or the book store. Part of that is the possibility of spending more time here than just when watching the film.

Realistically, what will be the balance of 35mm vs. DCP projection going forward, and if there’s a preference for 35mm, how will that limit programming? (And do you see the Metrograph as an opportunity to educate audiences about different film formats? Do you get the sense that people, in general, care?)

The new films will mostly be in DCP—as that is the way they are being produced and made available for exhibition. Whenever we can, we would prefer to exhibit 35mm. This takes some digging. But for every movie that we would like to screen that is not available on 35mm, there is another that is. DCP has replaced 35mm for some “classic” titles, but there are still literally countless amounts of film available on 35mm that we can access and screen. Certainly we will provide the audience with information they are interested in; the reasons why a certain movie is being shown in the format it is, or why one title is available as opposed to one that is not. It doesn’t have to be mysterious.

How will the Metrograph be different from the city’s existing first-run and repertory venues (this may be two separate questions)? Like, would you ever reject any ideas because they’re “too MoMA” or “more of a Spectacle thing”?

We don’t really think like that. Film-lovers go where the films they want to see are. Each venue reflects the interests of the programmers, their agenda, the different audiences they are trying to reach. There will be crossover, and there will be significant differences, too.

Because this is Brooklyn Magazine, I’m professionally obligated to read way too much into the location of the space, and the fact that a cool new movie theater is opening in the LES/Chinatown, and not in, like, Ridgewood: that the Brooklyn movie market is newly oversaturated; that the rent is too damn high; that you’re beating back against the migration of young creative types to Brooklyn; that cinephilia skews older. Talk me down.

Step away from the ledge. We searched for a long time for a good space, and we were not confining that search to Manhattan, or just downtown. Metrograph was built from the ground up, and the most important thing we needed was a large space, without obstructions, where we could do the construction necessary to make it a great place to see films. We also wanted it to be in the middle of a lively neighborhood. We are a block from East Broadway and a few blocks from Essex, from Grand, close to all the stations on Canal. Brooklyn: we have not forgotten you!

Metrograph_Theater 1 seats_Courtesy of Metrograph LLC_Photo by Takako Ida

Perhaps a follow-up to the two questions above: Though cinephiles tend to circulate among the city’s many venues, the major repertory theaters do have distinct identities, which in large part reflect their surrounding neighborhoods. Do you see your programming addressing your neighbors at all?

Absolutely. This will be a neighborhood venue, and we will screen films that reflect the people who populate it. The neighborhood has seen a lot of change in the last decade, but it is also one with centuries of history and families living here for generations. Cinema is a way of reflecting culture, and introducing culture to others. We are going to be open 365 days a year, showing different films every day. To know there is an audience for so many different types of films is a great thing, and will allow many different types of films to be presented.

It seems like longer-established venues have longer-standing relationships with various archives, labels, distributors, festivals and programming concerns—from Flaherty at Anthology, to the various cultural embassies at the FSLC, Cinema Tropical at MoMI right now, Rialto and Janus at Film Forum, and so on and so on. Does the Metrograph have any such recurrent programming partners yet?

We have already begun screening partnerships in our first program companies and cultural groups, including Criterion Collection, Shudder, Subway Cinema, Unifrance and the Henry Street Settlement.

How successful does a screening need to be for you to be sustainable? Do you have the luxury of doing much hardcore-cinephile narrowcasting? (And I’m curious about your philosophy… do you see programming as a matter of striking a balance between crowd-pleasers and esoteric stuff, or as a matter of finding a way to frame, contextualize and promote the stuff you care most about?)

Success is measured if people attend, spend time in the space, see films they find to be of interest, whether they know the films in advance or take a chance, and enjoy themselves, whether they come everyday or once a month. We look at programming as a chance to reach people, to share films and ideas we think are important. Some films will be seen as esoteric and others will be more mainstream. But nothing will be a compromise.

Anything ambitious in the works that you’d like to just hint cryptically at for now?

How cryptic? Japan. Animation. Hollywood outsider. Cuba. New American Independents. That’s a few weeks of programming right there.

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