In with the Old:
Checking the Pulse on New York Repertory Culture
The train stops at West 4th Street. I briskly rush out into the evening, southward to Houston Street. At some point I remember to peel my mask down. I’m approaching Film Forum just in time—but I have no cash! Oh right, they now accept cards. I take a seat somewhere generally close to the smallish screen and assess the scattered audience to decide whether I feel I should pull my mask back up. Post-2020 neuroses, or a lack thereof, are as varied as the people sitting around me, but the sense that cinemagoing is at once back to normal and yet also indelibly transformed feels universal, and this “new normal” foments a familiar worry: I hope theaters are doing okay.
Major chains and independent theaters have been threatening to declare bankruptcy since well before March 2020, and the costs and logistics associated with the digitization of theatrical projection through the 2010s have stoked the fire. The persistent quarantining of the last three years was a win for all the attention-economy tech companies who’ve been wagering on people never leaving the house. Still, here we are. It’s 2023, theaters across the country are open, and people still like going to them. But do they like it enough? In New York, this is a different sort of question. New York is home to hundreds of theaters, and a sizeable number of these are dedicated to filling their screens with repertory fare. Anthology Film Archives, MoMA, MoMI, Film Forum, Metrograph, Film at Lincoln Center, Nighthawk, Spectacle, The Roxy, The Quad, Light Industry, Maysles Documentary Center, IFC Center, BAM. Not a single major New York repertory cinema has permanently closed its doors as a result of the pandemic, which feels miraculous. Whether thanks to emergency government support or various specificities of strategizing, endowment, and luck, they’ve all stayed afloat.
But what about audiences? The erratic proclivities of these roomfuls of randoms are what movies thrive on; studio execs have been foolishly attempting to set their watches to them for more than a century. Since the 2020 and 2021 closures there’s been a heightened desperation in the air. Introductory video thank-yous (pleas) to audiences from auteurs such as M. Night Shyamalan and Tom Cruise before screenings have heralded this new era of multiplex-going, in which it is implicitly more important than ever that non-Marvel content outperforms expectations, often seemingly regardless of merit. And whether it’s Steven “Never Flopped Before” Spielberg perceivably flopping twice in a row on two of his most masterful achievements, or A24 breaking their own box office records with Everything Everywhere All at Once and then appearing to scuttle releases of artier titles like Stars at Noon or The Eternal Daughter, something is amiss with distributors, and maybe audiences. But the up-and-down short-term economics of the Box Office Mojo era makes for rather hard-to-read tea leaves. Skinamarink’s incredible recent success, for one, does not in itself indicate that audiences are drooling for non-narrative avant-garde fare. As far as public taste goes, there is far more richness to be read in the seat-filling behaviors of repertory cinephiles in havens like New York.
This essay is the first piece in a recurring column that will report on repertory cinema trends and the audiences that drive them, and it feels natural to begin with a pulse-check of the rep scene dearest to me.
I asked prominent New York film programmers, all of whom have been with their venues since at least the 2010s, about whether they felt their repertory audiences have returned in healthy numbers following pandemic closures. Eric Hynes, Curator of Film at MoMI, the organization which houses this publication, replied with an ambivalent narrative. The museum’s theaters drew reasonable crowds upon reopening in 2021, but “that winter was terrible, and it’s been harder to get a consistent audience since.” Hynes goes on to note that this current winter has been a relatively strong one for turnout, though he adds that the pandemic has made it more difficult than ever to predict what will resonate with audiences. Edo Choi, Associate Curator of MoMI (Hynes’s partner in crime), also points to recent audience numbers with optimism while admitting plainly that “our numbers have been worse since reopening.” Rajendra Roy of MoMA relates that “nothing is the same post-pandemic, but we still have full houses for many of our series.” A spokesperson for Film at Lincoln Center echoes some of Hynes’s and Roy’s sentiments, citing “multiple sold-out Q&As” for their Mike Leigh and Dario Argento series while concluding that things haven’t been the same. But a few theaters across the city gave much rosier reports. “We’ve actually had larger audiences since reopening than before the pandemic hit,” says Jed Rapfogel of Anthology Film Archives. “Our attendance, generally speaking, has been up since we reopened,” says Thomas Beard, referring to Light Industry’s move from Greenpoint to a larger space in East Williamsburg this past September. “We’ve been doing fantastic,” relishes Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein. Like most changed realities after COVID, there is ample fodder for both hope and concern. While centrally located theaters are thriving marvelously, places a little off the beaten track are having more trouble than usual coaxing people to journey out for old films.
Almost everyone I spoke to remarked that younger cinephiles, many presumably students whose 2020–2021 year was confined to Zoom, have reinvigorated the New York scene, and that these younger audience members seem abnormally excited about celluloid prints. While this new generation of viewers is not necessarily the bread and butter of any film organization’s ticket sales, where they’ve been flocking is telling. Anthology’s exhaustive film-and-video retrospective of experimental icon Michael Snow, presented just before Omicron in December 2021, was an astonishing success, with ten of the seventeen programs selling out. So too have Anthology screenings of Andy Warhol’s excursions in longueur, Paul Sharits’s retina-obliterating shorts Razor Blades and Ray Gun Virus, and many Essential Cinema programs (their perennial presentation of a bold canon of film history via their own archival prints) sold out or reached near capacity. Along a similar line, Light Industry noted having to turn people away for their sold-out screening of Peter Tscherkassky shorts.
Goldstein agrees that there have been more young faces in the crowds for repertory fare, though his impression of what’s been doing particularly well diverges from those above. Evergreens, such as Casablanca or Citizen Kane, have been doing exceptionally well for Film Forum, with Goldstein referring to their August 2021 Humphrey Bogart series as a “total blockbuster,” and noting further that the Bogart screenings on 35mm performed so well that he’s put a lot of effort into sourcing 35mm prints for the great majority of titles in their recent Preston Sturges retrospective. Goldstein is something of a scientist when it comes to homing in on New York audience preferences. Perhaps the biggest recent success story in this city’s rep scene was Film Forum’s seemingly endless summer-fall 2021 run of a 4K digital restoration of Jacques Deray’s sexy ’60s thriller La Piscine, whose incredible popularity with audiences became its own story, first in a New York Times Style column, then a Times (of London) piece whose dek reads: “Manhattan has gone crazy for this obscure erotic French film.” Goldstein’s distribution company Rialto Pictures released the crisp restoration, and for its socko run he credits a perfect syzygy of a well-cut trailer, a stylish new poster, the happy fact that The New York Times had never run a piece on the film for its original 1969 release (which often all but guarantees coverage for major rereleases), and the simple but undeniable sex allure of Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in swimsuits.
Goldstein’s film programming has always been a dance of adapting to the appetites of cinemagoers and media landscapes. Around when Karen Cooper hired him to program the second screen at Film Forum in 1986, as he remembers, many people felt that rising real estate costs and the enormous popularity of home video would spell the definitive end of rep houses in New York. However, VHS tapes were vulgarly cropped and not letterboxed, and Goldstein’s apt response to that moment was to present a very popular series of classic Cinemascope films. Another of his early moves was to play old titles more than once—theaters used to only present repertory programs as one-off double features, so that if you missed that one screening you missed both titles for the foreseeable future. Most of the prints that circulated, often beaten-up 16mms, were in wretched condition, which motivated Goldstein’s career-long dedication to the creation and circulation of 35mm prints of archival titles—some 1,130 by his count at this point. The time-tested gospel according to Film Forum is that a mix of strategic targeted marketing (cutting trailers and making pamphlets for every series or new restoration, aggressively courting press) and zeroing in on the right formats for each presentation will inevitably spell success. I would add to this that being located in Lower Manhattan doesn’t hurt.
Audiences are never far from the mind of dedicated programmers, but discussions of New York cinema audiences often focus less on what excites them and more on disruptions: inappropriate laughter, snoring through films, fainting, fights. It seems a perverse badge of honor in New York for a venue to be associated with a particular brand of audience transgression. Light Industry has a nascent but curious history of audience faintings, often due to factors like the influence of psychedelics or an understandable queasiness in the presence of uncompromising programming. “Just had our first fainting at our new space!” tweeted Light Industry this January after a Rodney Werden shorts program (a program which included one film demonstrating a man with “the ability to penetrate himself with his own penis”). A common grievance aired on Twitter pertains to the disrespectful cackling and tittering of young audiences through earnest or traumatic stretches in films, more often than not at Metrograph, who likely has its central role in the irony culture of Dimes Square to blame on these transgressors or (depending on how you look at it) the derision toward them.
MoMA and Film Forum are, despite their best intentions, eternally associated with a maladjusted, obsessive breed of moviegoer dubbed “the cinemaniac” (chronicled in the 2002 documentary Cinemania): a person, often with a penchant for antisocial conduct, who in any other world would be a shut-in, whose every hour is devoted to soaking up repertory fare in dark rooms, and whose sustenance comes from either government welfare, family inheritance, or some more convoluted stream. The cinemaniacs are still around, Goldstein confirms, but he also feels that audiences all over the city are more respectful than ever, remarking that back in the ’60s, conversely, audiences at MoMA used to loudly hiss and jeer at what they perceived to be the most misogynistic moments in Old Hollywood movies. MoMA has long played host to some of the more cantankerous regulars in New York cinema culture, and it’s likely that last year’s tragic stabbing of two MoMA film desk employees by a disgruntled cinemaniac will do no favors for that reputation, but I can certainly report from my experience that MoMA audiences on the whole seem reasonably well-behaved.
The types of people associated with each venue often dovetail with the types of films they show. At MoMI, which has made Wagnerian cinematic spectacle into a brand, regularly screening 2001 on 70mm prints in its immense blue spaceship (the Redstone Theater), one can rely on an omnivorous medley of viewers: a sprinkling of cinemaniacs (usually for the rarer fare); a dash of rep world insiders; a good chunk of cine-curious students and twenty-somethings; families; and, likely because it’s in Queens, a swath of ethnically diverse locals. The Museum’s programming formula that seems to have squared best with the imagination of New York cinephiles is on the one hand an embrace of Kubrickian precision and grandiosity, with many wide-gauge film screenings and showcases of modern classics like Casino or Miami Vice, and on the other hand a museological approach to presenting exhaustive auteur retrospectives of luminaries such as Kenji Mizoguchi, Theo Angelopoulos, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. This bears out in what Hynes and Choi report to me have performed well from the last year and a half. Screenings of Michael Mann films have been great for them, while surveys like Pioneering Women in Australian Cinema or their more off-kilter retrospectives of style-chameleon DP James Wong Howe and character actor Woody Strode have struggled. Retrospectives of all-but-unknown directors, like the Noriaki Tsuchimoto series I programmed for them last year and that of Qiu Jiongjiong programmed by Shelly Kraicer, have fared surprisingly well, or in any case far better than the quasi-anonymity of the directors would have portended. In other examples from the last year or so, Edo Choi gives an impression that squares with Goldstein’s: time-honored classics presented on celluloid seem to reliably get butts in seats, and he also allows that a more aggressive approach to marketing and garnering press would likely make a noticeable difference in the museum’s attendance.
MoMI being in Astoria (quite a transit for Brooklynites) and almost exclusively screening films on the weekend (when trains are haywire) means its curators can’t take anything for granted. “We’ll show a great movie, but if there’s no real hook for it less people will show up,” says Hynes. “Having more than one reason for people to see great films is key.” Hynes feels that some of MoMI’s less well-attended 2022 series lacked compelling hooks and mentioned that he’s become wary of putting on retrospectives, especially of directors, that lack a raison d’être beyond “they’re great.” He credits the unexpected recent success of the Qiu Jiongjiong series with its tie-in to the zeitgeist of Qiu’s 2022 film A New Old Play, a three-hour, Brechtian, mythical dream-logic journey through Chinese history that has caught on like wildfire among New York’s Chinese communities, and which Anthology, who showed the film earlier in 2022, also noted was a surprise hit. I press Hynes a little on why he thought the Tsuchimoto retro brought in crowds, and he responds with something that I’ve heard from a few other programmers, that audiences currently seem keen on rarities presented in a spirit of deliberate passion and scholarship, and—rather importantly—on analog film. Along with the rise of boutique streamers like Criterion Channel and MUBI has come a heightened appreciation for film experiences that aren’t digitizable, and an associated air of rigor alludes further to a gnosticism specific to in-person screenings.
The more alchemical considerations of distinguished programming, however, tend to obscure the necessity of keeping the lights on. Dig deeper into any of these reports and you’ll hit a root of financial unease. Last fall’s Noriaki Tsuchimoto retrospective at MoMI, which I felt was a great cultural success, had a price point nearing ten-thousand dollars (before factoring in a Japan Foundation grant of two-thousand dollars). None but the most stellar ticket sales could make up that deficit, but such is the price of rarity and scholarship. Anthology is doing about 15% better than they had done in the before times, but Rapfogel admits that inflation and the soaring prices of shipping, especially internationally, have made it so that “importing prints from overseas is more or less impossible” without outside sponsorship. Rising rents notably have forced UnionDocs to up and move from Williamsburg to the periphery of Ridgewood. Thomas Beard remarks that while renovating a new space for Light Industry building material costs increased precipitously, and that the key to their weathering of that storm was their combination of pragmatic thrift and the flexibility afforded by their decidedly “modest scale.” Many theaters have bumped their ticket prices up while their patrons’ wage rates have flagged behind.
Borough audiences now are of a discriminating breed: they want the good stuff, the rare stuff, the novel finds, the acetate emulsion. By all accounts they have eclectic tastes, and if any general trend can be sketched it’s that audiences are rewarding venues who can reliably uphold their hard-earned brands. If Anthology plays Friedl Kubelka vom Gröller they will come. If Film Forum plays a 4K resto of The Draughtsman’s Contract they will come. If Light Industry plays Ten Skies on 16mm they will go light-headed in ecstasy. If MoMI shows a pristine 70mm print of Sleeping Beauty—how the hell did they get Disney to loan that?!—they will take whatever combination of trains it takes to get to Astoria. If MoMA shows their newly acquired print of Tsai Ming-liang’s Face they will descend on Titus 1. And if my impression of Film at Lincoln Center’s Yoshimitsu Morita retrospective is accurate (Walter Reade Theater was packed), then they are hungry for off-the-beaten-track Upper West Side rep fare. Yet all these ifs are a lot iffier than they appear. While audiences want more interesting programming, want theaters to take bigger risks, to bite more bullets, theaters are struggling just to keep screening art-house tentpoles, and are,in many cases, quite a bit more risk averse than I can remember seeing. “There’s no discounting what it means to be consistent,” says Hynes, but with shipping costs rising significantly he adds that he’s particularly “worried about what it costs to maintain doing what we do.” Perhaps this is always the case whenever one opens the lid and peeks inside arts nonprofits: from the outside we see valuable culture upheld while in the backrooms staff are pulling their hair out. In any case, the uncertainties of today are leaving art-house institutions in a suspended precarity.
I’ve started this column in part as a response to a phenomenon I will call curatorial dissonance. That is, most anyone involved in film programming has a spider sense about what will and what won’t draw audiences out, and sometimes this sense misleads. In New York and a few other cinephile meccas there is license to be quite a bit more adventurous and risky in programming than in other cities, and this can lead to both confounding misfires and outré smash hits. As one gets sucked into a life of cinephilia it becomes dangerously easy to conflate a consensus within one’s rarefied bubble with a consensus among likely moviegoers.
As anecdote, I offer the Paradox of the Johns. John Ford and John Huston are two of the most celebrated film directors in history, and, while these reputations might smell a little musty, it is a widely shared experience that as one’s cinephilia deepens one begins to cherish their greatest work like fine wine. Each John thus seems the perfect marriage of being legendary to a general audience and adequately trenchant for seasoned cineastes. However, while discussing my pandemic deep dive into some of Huston’s latter-day delicacies (Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Kremlin Letter) with venerable New York curator Jake Perlin last year (“Incredible!” he agreed), he mentioned off-hand that the complete retrospective of Huston he did years back with Lincoln Center had a disappointing turnout. Similarly, years before, when I was discussing the sparse showings for John Ford screenings with David Schwartz, the former Curator of Film at MoMI, he relented that Ford just didn't seem “cool” to New York audiences, likely due to an inherent thorniness in his films’ politics. “Unfortunate,” he adds now, “considering how deeply complex and artistically accomplished they are.”
Reflecting on our conversation now, Perlin offered some insightful elaborations. First, he feels that the ways in which Ford and Huston might be out of fashion with certain audiences were not equivalent. “Preminger might be a better comparison for Huston,” he remarks with a clear passion for their similarly rambunctious bodies of work. Second, he wishes to make clear that the programmatic quandary with Ford and Huston, and Preminger for that matter, is not that one couldn’t draw crowds for any one of their films (he mentions a healthy turnout for a 35mm screening of Huston’s late-career curio Freud at Metrograph in 2017, though this was ultimately tied to a live conversation with Hilton Als and Rachel Weisz), but that it would be ill-advised to put on a large-scale retrospective for any of them. It’s a joy to hear Perlin wax sentimental about the distinct pleasure of a hit director retrospective. As to the great response to a complete Vincente Minnelli retro at BAM, it was bound to strike a chord because “all those films are fantastic!” (“Well, almost all,” he added after remembering Father’s Little Dividend.) There’s an ineffable x factor, an aura surrounding only the rarest artists, that can stoke an obsession in audiences, not to mention programmers. Optimally, film programming balances a presentation of such x-factor art alongside a smartly framed highlighting of lesser-known or less sexy works. Old Hollywood auteurs seem the most lucid frame of reference for the peculiar balance of divination and pedagogy that spells esteemed curation.
The line separating what works and what doesn’t in cinephile culture is murky. Most empty rep screenings could just as easily be chalked up to lackluster marketing budgets, problems of framing, or unideal choices of format as they could be blamed on any perceivable uncoolness with audiences. And much like with the flopping of new releases, distributors (i.e., studio archives, art house labels, and the like) are rarely blameless. Hynes remarks that post-closure communications with archives and distributors have been “a little bit of a wild west in terms of getting a hold of a print and showing it.” And he further adds that “companies are no longer acting as mediators between theaters,” by which he means it’s now a common occurrence for rep houses in the same city to book the same print mere days or weeks apart without being warned by the lenders.
The New York scene already has a tendency to cannibalize itself with its friendly competition of riches, and accidental repeat screenings add another element of chaos. Anti-cannibalization rules of thumb that have long been respected, like not scheduling the same director retrospective within a mere few years of another theater, have been called into question, notably by Lincoln Center putting on a Jonas Mekas retro in 2022 while Anthology continued that same year with their multi-part tribute to Mekas, their founder. Testing these boundaries is not necessarily a bad thing, and not all accidental repeat screenings of the same prints are for naught. If a film draws sizable crowds twice in different neighborhoods that’s good data to have. “I don’t feel like I’m competing with the Lower East Side,” says Hynes. It’s easy to lose sight of how vast a potential audience can be for each of these venues.
Taking in the supersaturated repertory cinema scene of New York, one begins to piece together an alternate narrative to what more general audiences want. New York is an early cultural proving ground for the ongoing process of canon-making that bleeds into which titles get restored and preserved, tour elsewhere, enter into college syllabuses, get wide home-video releases, etc. The fact that certain New Yorkers are currently salivating for vintage experimental cinema does not imply that 15 years from now AMCs—should they exist!—will be booking Brakhage shorts programs. It may mean, however, that the filmmakers of tomorrow, including those making the schlock that AMCs are booking, will have had greater exposure to the likes of Michael Snow or Chick Strand during their educations, or via Criterion Channel retros, than did their predecessors.
At the same time, film programming is inherently more provincial than other modes of art curation. A MoMA exhibition might be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, whereas a MoMA film screening has a cap at four hundred. (Repeat screenings may move the needle to a thousand or so.) Your average Monet-gawking pedestrian is worlds apart from a Pierre-Clementi–devouring cinema diehard, but the latter cohort often realistically numbers in the dozens. This vast difference in public reach is further obscured by the interchangeability of titles like “curator” and “programmer,” and rep theaters talk about their “seasons” as though they might as well be putting on operas. Cinephiles frequently desire to see things on film, but the optimum end result of a smash-hit on-film series is a digital restoration, which greatly expands access beyond theaters while sacrificing a lot of the special luster that sparked viewer enthusiasm in the first place. Among programmers, the importance of garnering write-ups in The New York Times and The New Yorker for a series is not solely to attract audiences, but to gesture at a more global conversation that suitably amplifies what’s going on in this cloistered milieu. It’s heartening to feel after my conversations that audiences are reliably “back,” and, even if programmers are in some cases still a tad apprehensive after the last three years, things seem on a good track in this veritable small town. As for the repertory cinemagoing world beyond New York—this national and global scene that has long served to further elevate what happens here—I’m very curious.