Volume 76, Number 7 | July 5 - 11, 2006

New IFC Center is proving to be the reel thing

By Rania Richardson

Last month, the IFC Center quietly marked the one-year anniversary of its conversion of the defunct Waverly Theater into a “cultural hub” for the Village. Traditional art house audiences, as well as a new generation of students and filmmakers, have come to check out the diverse range of programming and numerous events that make the center a beehive of activity.

The distinctive physical space — intimate rooms, great sightlines and roomy seats — should set a new standard for comfort in movie theaters. The films themselves have been a mixed bag. A good number of new releases have come from sister organization IFC Films, and their quality has ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. Critical and box office flops such as “Sorry, Haters,” starring Robin Wright Penn, and the atrocious “Kill the Poor,” contrast with entertaining hits such as “Transamerica,” featuring Felicity Huffman in an Oscar-nominated performance, and the current lively crossword documentary, “Wordplay.”

Other films screened have been wise selections from independent distributors, such as “Forty Shades of Blue,” starring Rip Torn, and the dirty joke documentary, “The Aristocrats.” Along with current films, the center has been busy with midnight movies (a Scorsese retrospective), celebrity attended premieres (Wim Wenders’s “Land of Plenty” with star Michelle Williams and beau Heath Ledger), benefits (a Jane Fonda-hosted screening of “Sir! No Sir!” to benefit Iraq Veterans Against the War) and a number of festivals and screening series.

According to general manager John Vanco, some of the center’s biggest box office draws can be credited to “energized, enthusiastic cores” of fans. For Matthew Barney’s arty “Drawing Restraint 9,” the theater was half-sold prior to any media announcements or e-mail blasts, because of the popularity of the director and his companion, Björk, who composed the soundtrack. Word of mouth and blogs rallied audiences with their antennae up, particularly a younger crowd of foreign students, Asian-Americans and artists. African-Americans, who are usually underrepresented in art house theaters, helped make Kevin Wilmott’s “CSA: The Confederate States of America” a hit.

Discussions with filmmakers are a regular feature, and out-of-town guests have participated via videoconference-style iChats using software from Apple. Director Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark”) was the perfect candidate for the first iChat because of his fear of flying and his reluctance to travel to the United States. Following a screening of his new film, “Manderlay,” he answered audience questions in New York via a MacBook in his basement in Copenhagen.

With so many films and events, the IFC Center may be the most dynamic movie venue in town. Keeping pace with the schedule is a job in itself. More than one patron has been flummoxed by the changing schedule, which can vary daily. Admirably, films that need time to find an audience are held over for many weeks, with a single showing or two per day. According to Vanco, it’s a matter of “training the audience” to be vigilant regarding show times. Hopefully, the underattended screenings that plagued the theater early on are just part of the growing pains of a new venue. And with any luck, the center’s restaurant/bar will evolve to become a comfortable place for cineastes to linger, as its main draw now is its proximity to the screening rooms.

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