Art-House Showdown

Photo: Thomas Loof

First, the Today show opened a storefront studio to lure screaming tourists. Then MTV plopped TRL in Times Square to lure screaming teens. And on June 17, the Independent Film Channel will open its shiny new IFC Center to lure screaming—well, whispering—cineasts.

The old Waverly Theater on West 3rd and Sixth Avenue, sung about in Hair and famous for launching the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight feature, is now a beautifully refurbished cinema—and a powerful branding tool, too. Inside, there are three theaters (210, 110, and 65 seats)—with great sight lines, big, comfy chairs (“imported from France!”), and high-definition digital projection. The cinema’s largest theater will be one of New York’s most impressive, with exposed brick and violet ambient lighting. The Waverly’s drop-ceiling has been ripped away to expose the vaulted, 50-plus-foot ceiling of a church, originally built in 1831. Upstairs, there are two film-editing suites; next door is a restaurant serving “Welsh rarebit, artisan Lancashire, double-smoked rashers.” In the lobby, downtown’s Posteritati gallery will exhibit vintage posters, while the concession stand serves “organic popcorn with rosemary butter.”

John Vanco, a veteran of Cowboy Pictures, Miramax, and New Yorker Films, will program a mix of indies, arties, foreign films, and documentaries. And, unlike his mainstream counterparts—which subject audiences to a barrage of ads—Vanco will screen a digital short film before features. A monthly programming series touts guest curators like novelist Jonathan Lethem; a nebulous “advisory board” includes Steven Soderbergh and Alfonso Cuarón. Vanco says the theater will screen restorations of classics—“for the Criterion geeks”—beginning with Japanese icon Yasujiro Ozu. And a midnight series pays tribute to the theater’s Rocky Horror history, beginning with William Lustig’s notoriously violent Maniac.

But on June 17, all three screens will open with Miranda July’s terrific Me and You and Everyone We Know. On the heels of that film’s Cannes awards, the opening is “a perfect storm,” says IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring—an acclaimed release produced and distributed by IFC, showcasing the Center’s synergistic ambitions. “This was really the vision of Jim Dolan, the CEO of Cablevision,” says Sehring—not the first thing you’d expect to hear about an art house. But it’s true.

The IFC Center isn’t that independent, of course. It’s owned by IFC Entertainment (the IFC network, IFC Films), which is a subsidiary of Rainbow Media (AMC channel, MSG), which is a subsidiary of Cablevision—which owns the Knicks and the Clearview Cinemas chain that let the Waverly lapse into disrepair in the first place. Cablevision held on to the lease, and Dolan saw an opportunity.

“The directive was, Make it IFC’s Radio City,” says Sehring. A top-notch movie theater, in other words, that could launch art films into the great ’burbs beyond, via Dolan’s cable channels and video-on-demand. “The independent-film distribution model is broken,” says Sehring. To fix it, IFC aspires to release small films with just one wave of ads and reviews, “instead of A markets, B markets, C markets.” The old At the Angelika show will now be shot here and rebranded At the IFC; Jon Favreau’s chat show Dinner for Five, Sehring says, will likely be filmed in the IFC restaurant. These are major advantages in the country’s most competitive art-house market, where distributors are willing to screen small films at only one theater per zone—in this case, Manhattan below 14th Street.

“If you wrote the IFC Center off to a marketing cost,” Sehring says, “it would still be a great marketing vehicle.”

This is not a luxury that many other art houses enjoy. “For the consumer, it’s very good, but it puts the rest of us at a disadvantage,” says Quad Cinema director Elliott Kanbar. “It’s like Rupert Murdoch bankrolling the Post. Now IFC, the Angelika, and the Sunshine are going to compete viciously for the same films.”

The Sunshine, of course, has its own corporate help. It’s owned by Landmark, the biggest art-house chain in the country—which in turn is owned by Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment, a rival to Cablevision (2929 just brokered a deal with IFC’s adviser Steven Soderbergh to distribute six of the director’s new films, cross-platform, simultaneously).

This leaves the Angelika, owned by the L.A. developer Reading, relatively exposed. “I know IFC’s opening a little later than they hoped,” insinuates the Angelika’s director, Terri Moore. “And I understand they’ll have a café, like we do. People always model success. It’s flattering. But a generation of directors and producers have dreamed of opening at the Angelika.”

A generation of filmgoers have also heard the rumble of the subway underneath. “The subway is part of the charm,” Moore says. “We’re very established,” she adds, noting the theater’s “high-traffic area, the great vibe—the new Crate & Barrel, all that.” I mention the branded TV spots IFC took away. “We have been approached to do similar television spots,” Moore says. “We can do anything they can do, too.”

But when I bring up IFC’s support from Cablevision and Sunshine’s synergy with 2929, Moore backtracks, saying, “We’re focusing on what we do well. Our audience are purists; they’re not interested in bells and whistles.” The Angelika’s reputation is its strength, after all: “What we offer, you can’t buy. You can try to copy it all your life.”

Vanco understands such concerns—and dismisses them outright, noting that attempts at one-studio theaters have failed before (Fine Line and the Thalia; Miramax and the Gotham). “We’re looking at the long term, and a theater like this needs to be run right to build credibility. Right now, we’re the new kid in town; our seats are fluffy and perfect,” he says. “The floors will have scuff marks soon enough.”

“It’s like Rupert Murdoch bankrolling the ‘Post.’ Now the IFC, the Angelika, and the Sunshine will compete viciously for the same films.”

The IFC, with new digs and leverage, may be able to steal some films from its competitors. The summer’s highest-profile American independent, Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, is still in play. But the Landmark Sunshine has booked the summer’s most anticipated foreign release, Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, and Film Forum’s legendary repertory list will be very hard to beat. Smaller houses like the Quad and Cinema Village are at the greatest disadvantage, but while they lack big backers, they’ll never feel the pressure to book an orphan supported by a corporate partner.

“It’s going to take guts and gumption,” says another programmer, “for John Vanco to turn down stuff that his parent company would like to see at the Center.”

Art-House Showdown