“Hopefully the theater can contain everything that interests us”: The New Quad Cinema

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Opened in 1972 as a late, arrival to the golden age of Greenwich Village’s cinema scene, the Quad Cinema, the city’s first multi-screen theater, has had many identities: far-out arthouse; queer cinema showcase; second-run house; “four-walling” purgatory. This weekend, the new Quad reopens after a multiyear renovation, re-emerging into something like an NYC moviegoing renaissance.

Charles S. Cohen, the real estate magnate turned boutique distributor with Cohen Media Group (which has recently released The Salesman and the Daughters of the Dust restoration), now owns the four-screen cinema. Similar to the Metrograph (which has an upstairs restaurant) and the Alamo Drafthouse NYC (which is a restaurant), the Quad now features a wine bar, but as in those other recent additions to the thrill is in seeing another programming voice emerge, with new options and priorities enriching a scene that seems, thrilling, capable of maintaining a rep scene far broader, deeper and more diverse than at any other time I’ve personally experienced. The Quad’s opening slate features a first-run program led by Terence Davie’s Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, as well as a major Lina Wertmüller retrospective, and “First Encounters,” in which special guests watch a canon-adjacent work for the first time, with fresh impressions to follow in a Q&A. (Greta Gerwig has never seen Blue Velvet, which for a girl who hung out with a lot of film bros in her early 20s is honestly pretty impressive.)

C. Mason Wells, formerly of IFC Center (and a sometime filmmaker who cowrote Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street, immanently at Tribeca), is the Director of Repertory Programming, working with Senior Programmer and former Film Comment Editor Gavin Smith. Wells answered a few of my questions over email.

Brooklyn Magazine: The Cohen Media Group’s purchase of the Quad makes sense, but a repertory program wasn’t inevitable. (Though it’s definitely the trend, as I’m struggling to think of an independently run screen of the post-Angelika/Landmark Sunshine generation to open in NYC in the past several years without a rep connection…) How did this come about? What was the pitch? Do you feel like the new Quad has a “brand” that’s distinct from the rep programming elsewhere? (Obviously you’ve been involved in some pretty highconcept programs previously…) What are you happy to explore in the Quad’s programming? What’s been missing?

C. Mason Wells: My boss Charles S. Cohen had planned for a repertory component when he purchased the cinema—it’s one of the reasons I wanted to be involved in the first place. I think it makes sense when you consider Charles owns a library of hundreds of classic films. The first-run screens can show new Cohen Media Group releases, and the rep screen can play restorations from the Cohen Film Collection. But Charles has been adamant from the get-go he wants the focus to be other films, from other distributors and studios. It’s still the Quad, not the Cohen Film Center.

While many other theaters have a repertory component, it’s just that: a component, often squeezed in between first-run shows. We have a dedicated, year-round, 365 day-a-year rep screen. Given the sheer volume of titles we’re playing, it’ll be tough to keep up, and you’ll have to regularly check our site and listings to see what’s on. It’s exhausting but I love it—making NYC moviegoers regret ever going on vacation. It’s closer to the model of rep houses of yore: a new double-bill every day.

I think a lot about what the Quad represented when it first opened as the city’s first multi-screen theater: Choice! Variety! It could house so much under one roof. Every cinema will of course have an identity, but I want our venue to feel particularly expansive and inclusive. I don’t think anything we program at the new Quad will seem like an odd fit, because hopefully the theater can contain everything that interests us. And we’re interested in a lot.

My fellow programmer Gavin Smith and I have a particular fondness for the marginalized, directors and films that aren’t in fashion at the moment. It’s part of why we’re opening with a Lina Wertmuller retro: here’s a woman who was a cultural juggernaut in the 70s and is known today (if at all) as more of a legend than an artist. But that reputation rests largely on a couple titles. What of her early films, never before released in America on any video format? Let’s look at the actual work again and see.

I always find myself craving new angles on film history, new ways of seeing. Director retrospectives are great—they’re how I’ve watched many films I love. But why not change the focus, and look at careers from specific perspectives? It’s the difference between doing a larger Larry Cohen survey, and doing a pocket program focused on his New York films. I think it’s important we’re doing a Goldie Hawn retro at the outset, too. Beyond just loving Goldie, it’s statement programming: gifted comic actors—particularly comediennes—tend to be sorely underrated by critics and awards groups in their era, so hopefully it sends a message to take artists like Hawn (or, say, Anna Faris) seriously.

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 In some ways, the environment we have in NYC now—a wide variety of first-run programming spread out over more, smaller screens, including a number of them within a 15-minute walk along Sixth Avenue between Houston and 14th Streets—recalls the era when the Quad opened, in 1972, just before the New Hollywood blockbuster explosion, when New York City was positively overrun with eclectically programmed storefront single-screen theaters on cross streets. But you’ve only lived in New York City in this century—so what are your memories of the Quad?

I mainly saw foreign films at the Quad when I was in college, titles like Kaurismaki’s The Man without a Past, and indies over the last few years, films like Terri or Cymbeline. Or Hollywood films in second-run—a 35mm print of Fury! The more I pored over the theater’s history, the more I learned just how much of a fighter it’s been, always reactive, mutating and surviving in an ever-shifting exhibition landscape. Almost all of its competitors from the 70s and 80s have died off, but the Quad still stands. I hope this latest iteration preserves much of that spirit.

Do you see the new Quad as a “neighborhood” theater? Do you hope to serve a community with your programming—and how so? Are there any organizations, within the world of film or beyond, that you’re partnering with?

Absolutely— it’s something I treasure. The Quad is in such a unique location: just a block south of 14th, it’s as uptown as you can get while still being downtown. So there’s a dedicated older audience, people who’ve lived in the Village for decades, some even in the co-ops above us. But there are tons of students from FIT and New School and NYU constantly passing through. It’s a really vibrant cross-section, and I’m excited by the idea of the theater as a true meeting point between generations: younger budding cinephiles and longtime film buffs. We’re not aiming to cater to just one demographic, but instead attempting to bridge the divide.

We’ll be working with several local organizations on programming initiatives, like Subway Cinema and NewFest, the latter of which is particularly important to me because the Quad has long been a vital home for LGBT films in the city. But we’re looking to expand the scope of our partnerships, to make the theater more of a destination and international hub. We’ll be introducing an ongoing collaboration with the Cinematheque Francaise, for instance, where we’ll be importing a few programs from them annually.

I know you’re a lover of celluloid—how do you see the film/digital split breaking down at the Quad? What will govern the decision-making there?

I want to show prints whenever and wherever and however I can. There’s an impetus on us as programmers to try and play a print when a DCP is also available. It’s important for our collective memory, to know what these films, these physical objects, really looked like. Procuring these prints often means extra work and cost—going to a collector or archive on top of paying for the rights. It’s not always feasible, but the effort matters, and I think (and hope) audiences notice and care.

Given the fragility and scarcity of many remaining prints, weeklong revival engagements—of which we’ll be presenting several, often in U.S. premiere runs–will typically be new (and gorgeous) digital restorations coming from all over the world. In our first three weeks alone, we have new restorations of The Gang of Four, City of Hope, Swept Away, Seven Beauties, The General, and Just Before Dawn, all screening in New York for the first time.

I’ll ask you the same question I asked Jake Perlin when the Metrograph opened, and Cristina Cacioppo, when the Alamo Drafthouse NYC opened: I have this theory that, with more and more competition from ever more, smaller, personal screens, cinema is turning to “event” moviegoing as a way of retaining audiences, and cultural attention. (I see this in the Metrograph’s bespoke aesthetic and courtship of a hardcore-cinephile audience; and in the Drafthouse’s food and genre-savvy branding; as well as in the superhero-universe arms race.) Do you see the Quad as working towards any concept of “event” moviegoing? How much more of an event can—should—going to a movie be?

Perhaps it’s naive of me, but I really do think seeing a great film onscreen with an audience is always an event, full stop. It’s a seemingly simple thing, and it gives me a charge unlike anything else. But of course I recognize (and sympathize with) the demand to further eventize moviegoing, as much as I personally don’t need it. Instead of trying to change the mold and tack on a lot of “added value,” I endeavor to think about what makes moviegoing so special in the first place, and try to magnify those basic elements.

This kind of thinking is where our ongoing “First Encounters” program comes from. We’ve asked a number of people we admire—filmmakers, actors, writers, and more—to select a film they’ve always wanted to see but never had the chance to, and we’ll show it to them for the first time, in the proper context. These screenings are obviously “events”—you have bold-faced names appearing live alongside a movie. There’s a performative aspect, as the guests will face over a hundred strangers after the screening and have to give a raw, unadulterated reaction. And each “First Encounter” can obviously never be replicated again.

But the appeal, I think, boils down to something very primal: the first time you see a film you love (or hate!), and the context in which you see it, is a special, sacred thing you never forget. We’re making memories not only for these guests, but also for the lucky audiences who come along for the journey. We’re sharing in something together. And that’s what going to the movies is all about.

Any in-the-works programs you’re excited to tease?

So much! I should’ve give too much away, but underrated French masters, exotic musicals, disreputable softcore—a lot of Halley’s Comet-rare titles that haven’t screened in New York in years, and probably won’t again for some time.

Renderings by Pentagram, courtesy of the Quad Cinema.

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