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Thread: The House Filmgoers Love to Hate

  1. #1

    Default The House Filmgoers Love to Hate

    August 10, 2003

    The House Filmgoers Love to Hate


    IT'S 7 P.M. on a recent Wednesday, and the audience at the Angelika Film Center is glued to its seats. As good as the movie may be, the reason is technical: the air-conditioning has been out for several days, and the atmosphere in the theater brings to mind the air in a storage locker in the Everglades.

    Still, some two dozen die-hards are sweating it out for Mike Figgis's experimental horror movie, "Hotel," enduring not only the mugginess, but all the other inconveniences weathered by anyone who has ever plunked down money for an Angelika ticket.

    Andrew Federman, a 28-year-old documentary filmmaker, is one of those customers.

    "It's like watching a movie in a large, uncomfortable hallway," Mr. Federman said. "The theaters are incredibly long and skinny, the sound is too loud and tinny, and since it's an underground theater, you can hear the subway go by, like, four times a film. It's kind of like being in a bomb shelter, minus the charm." Then he added, "And I know people who hate it more than I do."

    In a city famed for both fierce devotion to its cultural landmarks and critical cultural consumers, the love-hate relationship between audiences and the Angelika is one of the most pungent. And the griping about the Angelika Film Center on Houston Street in Greenwich Village — "the centerpiece of independent film exhibition in NYC," as its Web site advertises — remains one of many moviegoer's dirty pleasures.

    Long lines, small screens, muddy sound and squeezed seats; listen to Angelika visitors (or those who have sworn off) and you're bound to hear one of these complaints. The comedian Mike Albo likes to compare the theater's lobby cafe, where crowds wait until a film is announced and then rush to grab seats, to "a Romanian train station." Others are less light-hearted, like the movie patrons who have posted a litany of complaints about the theater on

    "There is very little reason to deal with the ridiculous lines, rude employees shouting into the P.A. system, postage stamp-sized screens and general air of decline," wrote one dissatisfied visitor who called himself SimonSpelling. "This used to be a once or twice a week destination, but now I'd only see a movie here if it wasn't playing anywhere else."

    The theater's owners say that complaints like that one (which was written in 2002) were the impetus behind a $1 million renovation undertaken last year. Robert Smerling, president of City Cinemas, the theater's managing company, said the upgrade included the installation of new seats, better sound equipment, improved bathrooms and air conditioning. (Three out of four isn't bad.)

    "We've done what we can do," Mr. Smerling said, noting the complex's structure, with all its six theaters below street level. "We can't change the floor level, but we did evaluate and try to improve the sightlines. We enlarged the screens, but it is what it is."

    Still, the persistence of the complaints, and the Angelika's decision to renovate, speak to the larger issue of what audiences for independent cinema — long the domain of tiny screens, scratchy sound and the faint odor of herbal cigarettes — now expect from their movie-going experience.

    "Independent film audiences are graying, and the older they get the fussier they get, both in terms of the films they like and the theaters they like to see them in," said Peter Biskind, the former editor of Premiere magazine and author of the forthcoming "Down and Dirty Pictures: Robert Redford, Miramax and the Rise of Independent Film." "The days when they would sit on the sticky floors and tune out the rumble of subways and the static from the screen on the other side of the paper-thin wall are long gone."

    With six screens, a high-ceilinged gourmet cafe and a downtown address (at Mercer Street and West Houston), the 17,000-square-foot Angelika was a New York film institution almost from the moment it opened in 1989. With its mix of art house pretense and multiplex variety, the Angelika seemingly created a whole new genre of movie house: the indieplex. The theater became a favorite for emerging New York-based film powers like Miramax and the Shooting Gallery, the launching pad for movies like "Clerks," "Kids" and "The Blair Witch Project." Black-clad crowds of hipsters and minor movie stars mingled with film and theater students from nearby New York University, all drawn by the theater's cool and the fact that, in many cases, the good movies were playing exclusively at the Angelika.

    Audiences today, however, have different expectations for their indie moviegoing experience, expectations that mirror changes in the very definition of independent cinema. The chasm between Hollywood and independent movies is closing, as Miramax dominates the Academy Awards and other Disney divisions produce breathy period pieces starring classically trained Shakespearean actors. And movies you used to have to seek out in obscure screening rooms are now readily on DVD and cable. In response, art houses are changing from dingy places where a few devoted cinιastes suffer for their art to venues that help audience favorites like "28 Days Later" and "Bend It Like Beckham"climb to eight-figure grosses.

    The result is art-house cinemas with all the amenities of the big modern chains. In December 2001, just down the street from the Angelika, the Sunshine Cinemas opened in the East Village trumpeting an array of features like Dolby digital sound and stadium seating. (They also, in a nod to the Angelika's influence, have upscale concessions.) In Brooklyn, meanwhile, the BAM Rose Cinemas at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opened in 1999, have won the allegiance of filmgoers with well-selected fare and clean, chic design. Those theaters joined the city's other major art houses, including Film Forum and the Quad Cinema, as well as the uptown Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

    And more are on the way. The IFC Companies (which owns the cable channel) plans to begin an elaborate renovation of the old Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village this month. It is expected to open early next year, with three new theaters, complete with Dolby Digital surround sound, as well as digital editing suites, conference rooms and a large cafe. It will be seven blocks from the Angelika's front door.

    "There's no question it's a more competitive market than 10 or even 5 years ago," said Karen Cooper, who has been running Film Forum (which is non-profit) since 1972. "There's more screens and more films being released. When I took over, there were maybe four or five films in a week. A typical week now there's 12 or 15."

    Meanwhile, larger chains like Loews and AMC Theaters have dramatically increased the number of screens in New York — and across the nation — over the last decade, allowing them to play independent hits like "Capturing the Friedmans" or "Spellbound" on at least one screen in their enormous new multiplexes.

    But while Mr. Smerling says that newcomers like the Sunshine have had "some marginal effect" on the Angelika's business, he says his theater still does very well. "While it's true that all of the modern theaters opened in the last three or four years are stadium design," Mr. Smerling said, "that doesn't mean that those of older design are not viable. Some of the best-grossing theaters in the city are flat floor theaters." (That said, both of the Angelika's new theaters — in Houston, opened in 1997, and Dallas, opened in 2001 — featured upgraded seating and wall-to-wall screens).

    Overall, Mr. Smerling seems unperturbed by recent changes in the market. "Sometimes we get the hot picture, sometimes they get the hot picture," he said. "I think that the first thing people look at when they go to the movies is what's playing, not where it's playing."

    In most cases, the Angelika is competing with deeper-pocketed opponents. The Landmark chain, which owns the nearby Sunshine, is the nation's largest art-house movie chain, with 185 screens in 19 cities on which to debut new films. The IFC Center, meanwhile, is owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Cablevision, the cable television giant.

    But the Angelika still packs them in. (One of the more common complaints, in fact, is that it is too crowded.) According to public financial statements, the theater's parent company, Angelika Film Centers, registered some $6 million in revenue in 2002, and $750,000 in profit. Revenue at the Angelika was down from nearly $7 million in 2001, although their profit was almost identical. (The company is jointly owned by Reading International, a theater and real estate company, and National Auto Credit, said Mr. Smerling, who is also the president of domestic operations for Reading.)

    "I think that despite the funky smells, and small screens, and crowded lobbies, it's still centrally located and they still play great films," said an executive with a major independent distributor, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "People will go through the rigmarole to see the quality films." And regardless of audience complaints, filmmakers say the theater still has an undeniable cachet, an ability that Mr. Smerling described as "being able to create a national interest in a picture."

    "There's something about the legendary quality of the Angelika, in that it has been the home to so many special movies, there's something that goes beyond issues like sightlines," said Andrew Jarecki, the director and co-producer of "Capturing the Friedmans," which had its debut at the Angelika in May. "It's a real machine, too. They are very good at getting the right audience in front of your film."

    By 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, when the air conditioning was finally back on at the Angelika, that audience was, in fact, sitting in Theater Three, home to "The Secret Lives of Dentists." The scene seemed familiar: 100 or so customers packed into the theater's center rows, a little crackle in the soundtrack and a slight flicker on the right-hand side of the screen. (A human hair? Dog fur? Who knows?)

    Only one thing seemed different. After the show, the lobby cafe was nearly empty, a shadow of the jumping Friday night scene I remembered from the early 1990's. Down the street, in front of the Sunshine Theater, though, was a scene that might alarm Mr. Smerling, and anyone else who believes that it's not how you show it, it's what you show. The only movie on at that time — a midnight showing of "Harold and Maude" — wasn't new, but the theater it was playing in was.

    The line stretched down the block.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

    Angelika Website

  2. #2
    Moderator NYatKNIGHT's Avatar
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    Oct 2002
    Manhattan - South Village

    Default The House Filmgoers Love to Hate

    The website says, "Located in the heart of SoHo...". Funny since it's technically not SoHo (being on the north side of Houston St.). *It is the closest theater to my apartment, so I go there often enough to notice the slightest of changes made while renovating; piles of wood moved from this corner to that, new sections of flooring ripped up. You would think they wouldn't charge top dollar for the terrible viewing experience, but they do get good movies and it's right up the street, so......this article hits home.

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