New York City’s New Metrograph Theater is an Indie Film Lover’s Dream
Last week, New York City welcomed the much-anticipated Metrograph—a new two-screen cinema that can play both 35 millimeter and digital films that is poised to steal the hearts of indie film lovers worldwide.
Walking inside feels a little bit like stepping onto the set of a Wes Anderson movie. The marquee has a custom-designed typeface that feels a bit like a blend of Roaring Twenties with SoHo loft. There are bespoke theater seats upholstered with brushed cotton, and floors made of terrazzo stone that “broadcast into a very basic New York structural concrete,” according to Alexander Olch, a New York-based tie designer and film director—and the man responsible for it all.
At the moment, the theater—the latest addition to the independent film scene in downtown Manhattan—only offers snacks and artisanal popcorn (a sampling of flavors: “Cacio & Pepe,” “Bonito,” and “Spicy”), but it will eventually include a restaurant and two bars. (As well as a repertory theater, bookstore, and publication arm.)
The program is a film lover’s dream. There’s everything from a Jean Eustace retrospective to “Noah Baumbach’s Dream Double Feature” (Babe: Pig in the City and Eyes Wide Shut). You can see The Blob (first shown in 1958, featuring a 28-year-old Steve McQueen) or three classic Frederick Wiseman films (Titicut Follies, Hospital, and High School) on new 35mm prints, on loan from the Library of Congress.
Here, too, you can see the projectionists work—there is a window into a booth where you can glimpse their nearly new Kinoton FP 30ds. “The idea is really a low-key glamour,” Olch explained on opening night. “We are by and large watching films, at least in the repertory, that are from another era, and there’s a romance associated with that,” he said. Travel+Leisure caught up with Olch to talk about the project and how it’s targeting a new generation of cinephiles.
What makes this a destination different from all of the other independent cinemas that we have in this city such as Anthology, Film Forum, BAM, or MoMA?
What we’re trying to do here is create an entire experience. I want this to be a place where you have a meal, read a book, catch a film, have a drink, stay for another meal, meet friends. We’ll have great Wifi. I hope that one of the next great screenplays gets written here, in the afternoons.
We’ve also attempted to create an even more elegant experience—with the reserved seating, with our tickets, our ushers, the design of the space—everything should help you just enjoy the film more. The screen size is proportionally very large, in terms of the field of view. It’s a cinema designed by filmmakers.
It sounds ideal.
I tried very hard to make a dream come true.
How did Metrograph come to be?
I think the idea came to me six and a half years ago. It’s been a slow, adventurous process of getting that out of my head and into concrete, brick, and brushed-cotton form.
How did you get artistic director Jake Perlin involved? Between him, Aliza Ma, and your projectionists, you seem to have a great cinematic team.
Jake released a movie I directed called The Windmill Movie in 2008-2009. As we traveled around the country together, the idea for Metrograph really took shape.
This is a new guard, a new generation in the New York programming world. Everyone involved in the project is in a similar age. We are a generation that grew up going to films. Jake and I both went to cinemas here in New York, we’d see sometimes two, three movies in a day. There’s a cannon of films that is not really seen as the cannon of the generation before. We wanted to create a new repertory cinema for a younger generation.
What kind of films are in the new cannon?
I would say I was extra proud to see Jim Jarmusch here at our opening party. I consider his films masterpieces.
So many of us have grown up watching movies on our laptops. Why did you choose to make a repertory cinema that prides itself on showing 35mm prints?
There is an interesting thing that has happened with the newer generation raised with digital devices and digital identities and digital lives. I think there’s an increasing emphasis on what is authentic. We’ve seen that in other fields. Take food, for example: is it organic? Is it farm-to-table? Or clothing: Where is it made? All of these things have happened in other crafts and other art forms.
In many ways that’s what we’re doing here. We’re bringing that kind of authenticity to the exhibition idea. So, for example, in the balcony lounge, there’s a window into Projection Booth 2 where you can actually watch our projectionist thread the film up. It’s that idea of seeing something in its authentic form. It’s not enough to say that you watched the film. Where did you watch the film? What format? How did you watch it? What print did you see? That’s really my analog, my farm-to-table for movies.
You’re working with The Criterion Collection. Tell me how that happened? What can we expect?
I’m a long, long fan of Criterion, and Jake has a long-standing relationship with the Criterion family. They came in for a tour during construction and were climbing up ladders and got incredibly excited. This will be the first event that they’ve ever done, and they’ve long been searching for a relationship with a theater. We’re calling it Criterion Live, and it’s going to be a set of events where Criterion is showcasing something that’s on their calendar of releases.
Everything at Metrograph, from the website to my ticket, has a nostalgic feel.
Well, I would argue that it's not everything. The idea is a low-key glamour. We are watching films that are from another era, and there’s a romance associated with that. I fell in love with making movies, but I also fell in love with the theaters where I watched movies growing up in Manhattan. There’s a group of theaters like the Beekman, The Plaza, and The Ziegfeld that now are all gone. And there was a sense when you walked into those theaters, even before the movie started, that you were walking into a place that was special. I’d love to create that here.
So we have a romantic idea of the past. Our forthcoming restaurant is called the Commissary. It’s named after the Commissaries from the old movie studios. We actually got the menus from the MGM, Paramount, and United Artist commissaries from the 1920s, 1930s, and1940s, and we’re remaining those dishes. There is very much an idea of stepping into a movie when you come here. But that movie—and this is important to me—is very much in the present, that you are in this building, that it’s not a cliché, it’s not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.
You also work in fashion. Could you talk about how your design experience has informed what you’re doing in film?
Making a movie, it turns out, is a lot like making a movie theater, and it’s also quite a lot like designing a collection. It’s a complicated process of trying to get your ideas executed through the hands of other people. It involves lots of budgets and lots of logistical issues. The skill often ends up being about how to communicate those ideas on top of making sure they are awesome.
Check out the Metrograph’s diverse programming on the website, and make sure to book ahead.
If traveling to New York City, Screen Slate aggregates the listings of independent cinemas, and features a film event every day.