In the three years that it’s been established in Williamsburg, the Nitehawk Cinema has grown into a neighborhood institution, and not just because you can get beer served to you while you’re watching the latest release. The programmers at Nitehawk, Max Cavanaugh (Cinema Manager/Programmer), John Woods, (Cinema Programming Director), and Caryn Coleman (Senior Film Programmer), have created noteworthy repertory programs and launched interesting independent movies, and generally created the kind of unique, cinema-philic atmosphere that you want in a local picture house. Because the holiday season is a big one for movies, and the programmers (who you might recognize from our list of 100 Most Influential People In Brooklyn Culture) have just come off their second annual shorts festival in November, we chatted with them about what a day in the life of a film programmer is like.
Tell me about yourself and your background. How did you get into film programming?
Caryn Coleman: The majority of my professional career has involved working in the contemporary art world but it was during my graduate studies at Goldsmiths a few years ago that my interests shifted to focus on artist moving images and cinema. Since I’ve always been obsessed with movies, this naturally lead to organizing films screenings and writing about film. When I moved to New York in 2011, I was fortunate enough to get involved at Nitehawk which has been an incredible place that has allowed me experiment and explore.
John Woods: Music and film are pretty much the two main things I’ve dedicated my life to since I was a kid. First as a moviegoer and record collector, and eventually as someone playing in bands and being involved in filmmaking. In order to have a job to come back to after being on tour, the bass player in my band and myself pooled our VHS collections and opened a video store on Bedford Avenue back in the 90s. Learning face to face from customers every day what they wanted to see helped us develop a large and diverse collection which led to eventually doing screenings around the neighborhood in different places over the years and seeing what worked and what didn’t. That’s basically how I came to do what I do today.
Max Cavanaugh: I began working on the production side of media, first as a story-board editor for animated commercials and shorts, then as an editor, assistant editor and post-production manager on documentaries. During that time, I was also working in the box office at Film Forum, which is a haven for cinephiles, both in its audiences and its staff. It was there that my life-long passion for film viewing started to turn into a career in film programming. Long conversations in the box office with my good friend Andrew Miller turned into a film series that we curated together called “Basic Cable Classics.” We screened in venues around Brooklyn and then met Cristina Cacioppo who was running the repertory film arm of the 92YTribeca. She gave our series a permanent home. Without her support and my experience with Andrew I certainly would never have considered pursuing a career programming repertory cinema. At first there was no money in it; I did it because I wanted to talk movies and see them in 35mm. We then did a couple screenings at Nitehawk the first year that is was open, which were big hits. As the theater grew, there wound up being a space for me on staff and I realized I’d never get this opportunity anywhere else in New York.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Coleman: A typical work day always begins with coffee and Twitter. From that point, since what’s happening each day can vary greatly on upcoming screenings, the best way to generally describe it is to say my days involve a whole lot of planning, promoting, plotting, and problem solving.
Woods: It really depends on what we have going on here. If there’s a Live Sound Cinema I could be helping a band set up and soundcheck, or searching for pre show clips. I could be preparing to moderate a Q&A if we have a screening with talent in house, or I could be trying to track down a rare 35mm print or searching for who owns the theatrical rights to a film we want to show. There’s always a lot of legwork on the production side that follows the creative stuff.
Cavanaugh: At Nitehawk we all wear a lot of hats. I have two titles: I am a programmer and I am also the technical director. I edit some of our preshows and trailers as well. In fact, we all help out with trailers and pre-shows. That’s one of the best parts of my job. Caryn and John will send me material for their programs and I’ll cut it together. I have a strong background in computers and A/V tech, so I manage our projection department, our IT network, fix issues with our equipment, and prep content for our screenings and festivals. I only wish I saw more movies. Now that I program I find that I don’t get out to the theater enough. I used to see two or three movies a day, now I’m lucky if I see three a week.
How do you put programs together?
Coleman: This varies depending on the program but it involves constantly watching movies, old and new. For the two reoccurring monthly series I do, Art Seen and Naughties, I tend to look at the context overall for the year, while any individual month-long series I organize means a more thematically condensed program. Our annual Shorts Festival is way more involved and structurally organic (from submission to selection) over an extended period of time. Since I prefer to work directly with filmmakers whenever possible, developing relationships with artists and filmmakers through collaborative projects with Tribeca Film Institute and New York Film Festival creates the spark to realize interesting and relevant programming.
Woods: Sometimes I’ll come up with what I think would make a good theme for a series and go from there. Other times I’ll build a series around a particular film or find some kind of common thread between a group of films that might not be obvious fits and present it that way. It’s a fun thing also to put in a lesser known or personal favorite film in a program where the theme or other films in the program might give people a reason to give it a chance.
Cavanaugh: I love that the three of us in the programming department have very different tastes, so when we all agree, we know we’ve got something for everyone. We all have our own interests and series and share in selecting brunch and midnight programs. The process is both intensely collaborative and individual, which is what I think makes our programs so unique. In short, we pack a lot in to our three screens every year.Often some programs are obvious, like when we were showing Inside Llewyn Davis we had a Coen Brothers brunch and midnight series. For the brunch and midnite series we often work in themes. One of my series this year was called A Reasonable Length, which was born from my frustration with how long modern Hollywood films and episodic TV shows have become. In the 1930s and 40s, films were often under 90 minutes and they had great characters, plot, and tension. Not that I don’t love epics–I do–but I wanted to highlight films that were about 90 minutes or less. It was fun to have a theme that was so broad that I could pick films from different genres and decades that all the exemplified my theme.
In programming, I also love to collaborate with special guests and curators. Through the years I have met many filmmakers and kindred lovers of film and I want to give them a venue to showcase their talents and tastes. This is exemplified in our Deuce film series, which features films that premiered on “The Deuce” (the 12 theaters on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in the 1970s and 80s). The series crosses many genres and also places the films in a historical context. The selection process for that series is dictated by what films played on the Deuce in that era, but also by what is available to book and what is available on 35mm. It can be restrictive, but the detective work it takes to track the films down can be a blast.
What are you looking for when you’re selecting a film for a certain program? What are your selection criteria?
Coleman: One consistent is that I want to show films that resonant with an audience. My curatorial background has engrained it within me to always to ask: why now? So for repertory programming, questioning why it’s important to show a film means to look at what’s going on in the world and determine whether a film or series is relevant or if a movie is ready for a revisit. In terms of programming new releases (which for me is mainly artist films, independent features and documentaries), I simply look for something that engages in innovative and fascinating story-telling.
Woods: Anything goes really. The challenge is trying to provide context as best you can in different ways and strike a balance between more popular films and more obscure stuff that you want to bring to a larger audience.
Cavanaugh: We try to find a balance between the films we love and the films we think will be big hits for us. The best is when both of those criteria intersect. This year the program that was both a success and was a true passion of mine was the Industrial Light and Magic series. I had to pick films that featured their special effects but also were going to be crowd pleasers. In the end I chose Jurassic Park, Willow, Temple of Doom, and The Abyss.
What are three films that you think everyone should see?
Coleman: F for Fake, Medium Cool and for a new release that came in 2014, Art and Craft.
Woods: Force of Evil, Being There, and 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s
Cavanaugh: Raiders of the Lost Ark (because it’s my favorite film), Jaws (because it’s Jaws), and my favorite recent repertory discovery, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up.