You don’t need a ticket to get into Metrograph, the Manhattan movie theatre that opened in an ochre brick warehouse on the Lower East Side last spring. The lofty, palm-fringed space is like a concept shop for film buffs, where you can flip through vintage issues of Cahiers du Cinéma in the mezzanine bookstore, browse the backlit tuck shop for cayenne-flavoured artisanal popcorn, sip a “Night of the Iguana” tequila cocktail at the bar and dine on steak frites at the Commissary restaurant before even hitting the box office.
Two brick-walled screening rooms are the backbone of Metrograph, launched by Alexander Olch, a filmmaker-turned-fashion designer. Olch’s nostalgia for the silver screen experience offered by now-extinct New York theatres, such as the Plaza and Ziegfeld, was the chief motivator in conceiving the cultural hub. And his friendship with the eminent film producer and programmer Jake Perlin helped him to realize it.
Yet, Metrograph’s identity is really tied up in the contemporary ideal of the “third place,” where people can meet, loiter and consume culture at every level.
“What I was most interested in was more than a facility you enter for a 7 p.m. show and then go someplace else,” says Olch of the seven-year project. “It’s an environment where people really want to linger, for filmmakers and film-lovers to have a community, a place to hang out.”
With free WiFi, naturally.
The new microcinema is a growing recreational trend that wraps up entertainment and food in a contemporary-design package to appeal to generations now living online. The contents – whether gin distillery and vinyl museum, or art gallery and deli – vary from Austin, Tex., to Bristol, England, to Guelph, Ont. But film is always at the heart, the lure away from what’s trending online.
Since the birth of Beta we’ve watched filmgoing reinvent itself. As multiplexes multiplied, so did the rescue and refurbishment of golden age cinemas in all their red-velvet glory.
But Metrograph’s Ludlow Street warehouse isn’t your standard rep theatre. Although its red-velvet seating and retro-look marquee borrow from the silver screen era, it doesn’t play into old filmgoing traditions. Not because those traditions were flawed but because they failed to evolve.
Olch offers as an example the large window in the balcony lounge that looks into the projection room. “Watching the projectionist thread the film up is one of the most popular things in the building, and for years it was something intentionally hidden,” he says. “Like an open kitchen where you can see the chef cook, I think ‘process’ has become very important to the consumer experience.”
As has the one-stop culture shop. “It used to be, ‘Want to go to a movie?’ ‘Okay, but where are we going to go after?’ The experience of seeing the movie didn’t feel special enough on its own,” Olch says. “This is a correction against that.”
Any town with an artistic community has its own 21st-century take on moviegoing, whether a floating theatre, outdoor screen or microplex. They represent the new fringe. Yet venues such as Metrograph make an extra effort to be all things to all people, or at least to one kind of person.
“This is hipsterville,” says Jo Hagan, who last fall launched the Institute of Light under a railway arch in East London. “It’s an inquisitive and demanding audience who understand culture and want it presented in all its complexity.”
As with Olch, Hagan was motivated by the notion of a holistic experience. “So often you come out of a fantastic film and you’re enthused and the world looks a different place,” he says. “Then you go to the pub around the corner. It’s really demoralizing.”
Even in this corner of London, Institute of Light is not alone. Half a kilometre away in one direction is the Castle Cinema, which opened in February in a century-old theatre, adding a plush art deco bar, restaurant and gallery upstairs. A half-kilometre in the other direction there are plans to reopen the old Rex cinema with a café, restaurant, 150-room hotel and rooftop garden.
The Institute of Light has a deep wood-deck terrace leading into an art bookshop and Brazilian tapas restaurant. Visitors can come to browse, sit down to a platter of Moorish chicken, order an Aperol spritz at the bar and take it – glass and all – to a sofa in the 54-seat screening room. (Cinema sofas are a given these days.) By day, the screen pulls up to reveal a bank of glass doors that provide a second entrance to a vinyl shop run by Barely Breaking Even records. The entire infrastructure can be demounted in eight hours for multimedia events.
“This couldn’t have existed 10 or 15 years ago,” Hagan says. “There weren’t people travelling from around London to hang out here. There weren’t people living here.” He portrays the diverse creative community as hungry for authenticity. “They want the character implied by something vintage – to appropriate depth, if you will. But at the same time they want contemporary culture, so we can show La La Land and Dr. Strangelove back to back,” as they did last month during their Americana film program.
A neighbourhood architect, Hagan saw the space become available at a time he was working on projects with the record label and a pop-up cinema impresario. The idea of a place to celebrate analog culture “just clicked in my mind. Why can’t all these different elements feed off each other – a cinema that was a record store during the day, a restaurant that was a bookstore during the day.” Creating round-the-clock interest also helps pay the bills.
As an institute, it hosts film clubs for every passion and festivals in collaboration with academics and curators. Yet it “balances opposites” between archival and first-run films, which it gets three weeks into the national release.
Likewise, the design straddles both worlds. It respects the industrial history in the monumental brick arches of the former scrapyard. The contemporary counterpoint is a clean, modern restaurant and bar. Meanwhile, Hagan has sneaked vintage reclining airline seats into the theatre. “We balanced opposites to come up with something quite exciting and new.”
“That tension between old and new is where glamour and chic and coolness can be found,” says Olch of Metrograph. “Adhering to exactly the way it was is just a period piece. Trying to make something brand new and full of technology is also boring. That tension – to me that’s the place to be.”