Volume 74, Number 3 | June 8- 14, 2005

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Above, John Vanco, IFC Center vice president and general manager, in front of one of the new Center’s three main screens. Below, the Center’s Sixth Ave. marquee.

Indie theater could be ticket to art house renaissance

By Rania Richardson

At last, on June 17, the IFC Center will open at the former Waverly Theater at Sixth Ave. and W. Third St. After four years of being boarded up and looking rundown, the ugly duckling finally emerges as a swan.

Cineastes of the Village should be pleased. “There couldn’t be a better location to have an indie film house than right here,” said Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, referring to the bustling Downtown thoroughfare, the proximity to New York University and the home of the original iconic Waverly that brings with it a legacy of the halcyon days of moviegoing. “We want to be an anchor tenant that the community embraces.”

The debut feature is “Me and You and Everything We Know,” about children and adults struggling for meaningful connections in an increasingly digital and isolating world. Accomplished multimedia performance artist Miranda July wrote, directed and stars in the film, which won awards at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals.

“The film is hip and refreshing. It is serendipitous that it was ‘our movie,’ ” said Sehring. The ever-expanding IFC is producer and distributor of the film. The IFC Entertainment empire began 10 years ago with cable television’s Independent Film Channel and later added arms for production, distribution, and video-on-demand. An announcement was made recently that Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s new post-Miramax company will work with IFC as home-video distributors and international sales agents. The IFC Center marks a further expansion into the world of theatrical exhibition.

The Center was envisioned as a bricks-and-mortar home for the company, as well as a nexus for the film community in New York City. As the independent movie capital of the world, New York could use a place for filmmakers and film lovers to gather, to discuss movies and cultivate a film community.

Comfort was a priority in creating the three-theater space, to compete with the rising number of home theaters and the conveniences of staying at home with HDTV. “We wanted to create a great viewing experience,” said Sehring, not unfamiliar with the issues plaguing other art houses in town. The price to pay for seeing great movies has been cramped seating, obstructed views, balcony theaters, subway rumbling underfoot and lack of aisle seats, not to mention multistoried climbs and outdoor waiting in inclement weather. At least the negative floor rake departed with the original Thalia.

IFC Center seats are unexpectedly roomy, comfortable and beautifully designed. Leg room passed the test for the 6-foot-3-inch Sehring. Some seats were eliminated from the original plan to guarantee sightlines and add to the spaciousness, and there is convenient entry and ample space for wheelchairs. The ground floor houses the largest — 220-seat — theater, with the 120- and 70-seat theaters one level above. The smallest room will be used for press screenings and openings, and will be available for party rentals. All three rooms are equipped to screen 35-millimeter and high-definition digital video. Admission will be competitive (under $11) and there will be a subscription-type volume discount.

Bogdanow Partners Architects was brought onboard in 2000 to renovate and modernize the 200-year-old edifice and the building next door. Firm principal Larry Bogdanow transformed the space with the instincts of an insider. “I had always wanted to be a filmmaker, but married one instead,” he said, referring to his Academy Award-winning wife, Deborah Shaffer. The work reportedly cost $8 million to complete. “We wanted to give it a mini-version of the Radio City Music Hall restoration,” said Sehring. Cablevision, IFC’s parent company, owns the Midtown landmark and renovated it in 1999. Cablevision is also the owner of the Clearview Cinemas chain, which operated the Waverly until it closed in October 2001.

A tactile juxtaposition of materials gives the new space a hard-edged sensuality. Tinted concrete floors in the lobby, original exposed brick and heavy wood trusses on the 50- foot-tall ceiling in the main theater, as well as the original stone in the cellar provide a counterpoint to the various forms of state-of-the art screening technology. Video screens make an appearance above the marquee, in the lobby, the elevator and restaurant. All are part of the “constant tension of the old and the new,” explained John Vanco, vice president and general manager. He hopes that the audience will remember the experience of being in the theater as well as the films themselves. “The audience should know they are not in a suburban multiplex,” he said.

Vanco oversees the Center’s operations and programming. He has no plans to show studio films, television programs or sports at the theater, just independent films. In addition to showcasing work from the IFC brand, much of the programming will come from international film festivals, including work without distribution and more artistic fare that may not be commercial.

IFC Entertainment’s multiple platforms and national promotion possibilities offer unparalleled corporate support to offset financially risky films. In his new role, Vanco plans to use the chutzpah and aggressiveness he learned from working as a publicist at Miramax. What had been a rote, review-dependent formula for distributing independent film was turned on its head with the “Miramaxification” of the industry, which incorporates Hollywood-style marketing muscle to make a profit on independent fare.

Offerings will consist of new films with open runs from independent film distributors, along with retrospectives and undistributed work. Upcoming highlights include two recent hits from the international film festival circuit, “Tropical Malady” and “The Educkator,” as well as Ozu’s classic silent film “I Was Born, But…,” accompanied by a live pianist. Bill Lustig’s 1980 thriller “Maniac” will inaugurate a midnight series, set to commence on opening night.

Short films will precede every feature. Because the Center houses two digital editing suites, some trailers and promos will be created in situ. Filmmakers will have access to the suites for original work, as well. With the flick of a switch, works-in-progress can be screened in any of the Center’s theaters for review.

Behind the painstaking attention to detail that has gone into creating this cutting-edge facility, are the visionaries at IFC, especially Sehring, who would love to usher in a new era of film culture. Now on the cusp of turning 50, Sehring came of age during the 1970s glory days of art house cinema when the Waverly was one of New York’s key theaters, along with the Bleecker Street Theater and Theater 80 St. Marks. From that time, he cites seeing a double bill of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Alexander Nevsky” as a seminal experience. His film career began at Janus Films, one of the first distributors to bring world cinema to this country. He says there he “got to meet everybody — from Kurosawa to Truffaut.”

The 37-year-old Vanco missed out on those glory days of film viewing, but felicitously grew up watching films from the Janus catalog. He said he is “wistful for a time he didn’t actually experience.” “Smiles of a Summer Night” and “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” were influential favorites. He later honed his aesthetic working for Dan Talbot at New Yorker Films. “Dan helped change the film culture,” he said of the distributor, who also owns and operates Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and recently received an industry lifetime achievement award from the IFP/New York Gotham Awards. Talbot is one of a number of stellar advisory board members for the IFC Center, including John Sayles, Errol Morris and Richard Linklater.

In a nod to the original cinema, the lean, 47-seat bar/restaurant that is part of the project has been named The Waverly at the IFC Center. Food will consist solely of “small plates,” or appetizer-sized dishes, ranging from $6 to $9. Cocktails will be in that affordable price range, as well. To encourage post-screening gatherings, the cafe will stay open one to two hours after the last film of the day, including midnight shows. Great Performances, a catering company overseeing the restaurant, is exploring relationships with local vendors, such as Amy’s Bread, Murray’s Cheese, Chocolate Bar, Il Laboratorio del Gelato and local farmers, to supply provisions.

“I trust we’ll set the tone for a new roster of businesses drawn to the vitality of the neighborhood,” said Vanco, who lived in the West Village for almost a decade until recently. “I hope that the theater is energizing and will inspire people to come to an arts-based cultural hub.” The classy new Center has emerged on a strip of sex shops, tattoo parlors, chain stores and fast food. Had IFC not stepped in, the unlandmarked space might have become a high-rise, or another business similar to those.

Recognizing that the neighborhood includes residences and that there are bedrooms that overlook the backyard of the Center, Vanco states that there will be no open-air screenings or music there. Measures are being taken to muffle any sound that might be a concern, such as by housing the air conditioning atop the structure. “We want to be a good neighbor and be sensitive to the community,” he said.

As Vanco was speaking, there was a lively scene of basketball players at the renowned W. Fourth St. courts, visible through the Waverly’s glass front. Will the theater get a positive reception and thrive in this frenetic location, amid the sex shops, tattoo parlors and ’ballers? “New York is full of microclimates,” Vanco said. “There’s room enough for all.”

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