The Cinema You've Been Waiting For: New York City's Metrograph
Like a beacon of light in a city whose filmic institutions are gradually dimming, the Metrograph theater opens its doors today. And its programmers are determined to make the space filmmaker-friendly.
The Metrograph is the first new independent arthouse theater to grace New York City's streets in decades. With it comes an ebullient pair of young programmers, Jake Perlin (from BAM Cinematek) and Aliza Ma (from Museum of the Moving Image), whose vision for the theater is as ambitious as it is wide-ranging. Together, Perlin and Ma have created a cinephile kingdom, and a space that they hope will unite the vibrant filmmaking community in New York. Interspersed with an eclectic screening schedule, the duo will host lectures from accomplished directors and rent out their space for affordable screenings for independent filmmakers.
The two-screen cinema also boasts a lounge, restaurant, and bookstore, though its programmers will have you know that this is no Drafthouse or Nitehawk, where patrons eat and drink in their seats—cheeseburger-chewing and a 35mm Jean Eustache screening are two separate experiences at Metrograph, thank you very much.
NFS managed to catch Perlin and Ma amid the flurry of opening week. ("There's so much clanging around with film in the office right now that I'm literally falling over," Perlin told us.) Metrograph opens its doors this weekend. Check out the screening schedule here.
NFS: How was your opening reception last night?
Jake Perlin: It was incredible. People were freaking out. It was so gratifying. People were coming up to me and going, "This is the most incredible thing." The whole balcony was packed. It could not have gone better. The short films we showed couldn't have played better; people couldn't have been more excited. For Aliza and I to finally be able to watch a film with an audience was mind-blowing.
"There's a feeling that can only be generated in a theater when the lights go down. You think, 'Anything can happen now.'"
Aliza Ma: It was pretty surreal seeing people inhabit the space and enjoy themselves. Our office is right next door to the theater, and we've seen it change so much every single day, but without anyone in it. It's very surreal. We had short film programs on 35mm cycling through so that people could go into the theater and experience what it was like.
NFS: What is the inherent value of the theatrical experience, and where does Metrograph fit into that?
Ma: We come from very different cultural backgrounds. Jake grew up in New York and I was born in Beijing. We both have very deeply embedded and intense memories of being affected by filmgoing experiences from childhood onwards. It still happens all the time. We're trying to create a space where people can have those experiences too.
Perlin: There's a special kind of discovery that comes from a theater. It's just a different experience from any other way of watching a film. It's something that can't be duplicated at home: coming into a theater, seeing the image that big, watching it on film, sharing it with other people you don't know.
Ma: When we were young, we had VHS and CDs. The physical relationship you have to these objects becomes very special. Now that we find ourselves being able to access most things at the touch of our fingertips, it makes us yearn more for something of an authentic experience.
Perlin: There's a feeling that can only be generated in a theater when the lights go down. You think, "Anything can happen now."
NFS: How is your theater different from, say, a Drafthouse or a Nitehawk? You have a lounge and a restaurant — do they interact with the theater?
Perlin: Well, we're not serving food in the theater. You can't eat in the theater. We have an interesting and wide-ranging concession stand that's unlike any other. We're just not doing the same thing that Drafthouse and Nitehawk are doing.
"You don't want someone eating a cheeseburger next to you when you're watching Mother and the Whore!"
Ma: We wanted to separate the experience of dining and watching movies. You don't want someone eating a cheeseburger next to you when you're watching Mother and the Whore!
NFS: What was the programming philosophy behind your first screening series, Welcome to Metrograph, A-Z? Is it a precursor of what's to come?
Ma: It's a very idiosyncratic list of films. Not the ones you might expect to see. We made long, arduous lists and over-thought the programming. One day, Jake had this Eureka moment where he just said, hey, we don't need to over think this; it should be intuitive. It should just be one film from one director. It should be a special experience we've had with a movie. Once that switch was flipped, the films came very naturally to us.
Perlin: It was instinctual.
Ma: I hate calling things organic, but the only structuring principle was the alphabetization of the titles and that we could only have one work per filmmaker. Then the films just came to us. And, as always with programming, your selection process is to a certain extent guided by material availability, especially with 35mm.
Perlin: We found what we wanted after a lot of digging and bringing in prints from Prague —
Ma: — Taiwan, the UK, Italy, so many places.
Perlin: We asked ourselves: what films are just unequivocally great films? It wasn't like, "We have to show a Polanski film."
Ma: Equinox Flower, for example, is not necessarily the most significant Ozu film, but for some reason every time I watch it I just bawl uncontrollably. It's so indescribably moving.
"If there's a film that we want to show that nobody has picked up, we'll do our best to help it get distribution, or we can show it without any distribution."
Perlin: It was just following each person's passion. Finding the one film that slays you. That just describes a lot of our programming process. Aliza has been saying that for us it's not about making canons, or making anti-canons. It's about doing what feels right. We want these films to exist next to each other. The idea of "Welcome to Metrograph" is to say, you know, you can come see Barry Lyndon or Scorpio Rising and those movies exist together in the same world because they're great films.
NFS: Speaking of existing together, how will you be integrating new releases with classics?
Ma: If there's a film that we want to show that nobody has picked up, we'll do our best to help it get distribution, or we can show it without any distribution. We're not beholden to big runs — you know, having to give a film six showtimes a day. If we want to support something and we know we can make it work business-wise, we'll do it. We're also doing revival runs of older films mostly on 35mm. Our calendar is very holistic.
"Nothing would make me happier than if a filmmaker got a job because they made a connection here in person. I want people to say, 'We're working together because we met at Metrograph.'"
NFS: I've heard that part of the mission of Metrograph is for the space to function as a hub for filmmakers. How do you intend to connect with the filmmaking community?
Perlin: New York is filled with filmmakers and future filmmakers. We hope that people will have an experience here that will turn them on to the filmmaking process if they're really young; if they're active filmmakers, we want them to come and see something that inspires their work. But that's obvious. We're also trying to make this space available for rough cut screenings.
Ma: We're going to invite filmmakers, actors, editors, and other talent to all of our screenings, because they live in our backyard. In the first calendar, we tried to reach out to everyone whose films are showing. We're also thinking about having directors come and do lectures when they're in town, or come and do a carte blanche showing. Noah Baumbach told Jake he wanted to show Babe, Pig in the City with Eyes Wide Shut; we could have shown a Baumbach film, but we thought it would be more fun if he picked his dream double-feature. We want to encourage people to be as weird about it as possible.
Perlin: The idea of Metrograph is that it's a place to congregate, draw inspiration from, meet other people. There are not a lot of spaces that are movie theaters that also have places to mingle and congregate. Nothing would make me happier than if one day a filmmaker and a producer, or a production designer or a DP, or a film student who's an aspiring filmmaker, got a job because they made a connection here in person. I want people to say, "I was inspired by this screening I attended [at Metrograph]," or "We're working together because we met at Metrograph." I expect it will happen.