New arts institutions aren’t born in New York City every day, especially not in an overheated real estate market. So in late August when Alexander Olch announced plans for a new independent cinema called Metrograph on the Lower East Side, people were more than a little intrigued.
Since that time, the Orchard Street tie designer and his team have been making the rounds in a high-profile neighborhood outreach campaign. It will culminate a week from tonight, when Olch and company go before a Community Board 3 panel in their quest for a liquor license.
Last week, we sat down with the determined local entrepreneur to talk about the ambitious proposal for a world-class art house cinema inside a former food supply warehouse at 7 Ludlow St. After a tour of the facility near Canal Street (still very much a construction site), Olch discussed his vision over a cool drink at Dimes Deli, a short distance away on Division Street.
Although he has been designing high-end ties for more than a decade (they’re sold at places like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman), Olch did not open his first permanent retail store until late 2013. He’s in the middle of moving the shop and production facility to a larger space a few doors from the original location at 14 Orchard St. Olch also lives in the neighborhood. His apartment is situated just a few steps from the new theater on Ludlow Street. While best known around here as a fashion designer, Olch is also a filmmaker, whose most recent project was The Windmill Movie (2009).
It has been a six-year quest to find the ideal location and to assemble the right creative team for the two-screen theater, restaurant and rare book shop. Olch sees all of his projects as film productions, the current undertaking included. “To me this is as interesting, as complicated, as challenging, as wonderful as making a film,” he explained.” Noting the complexity of opening an independent, for-profit theater in 2015, he added, “It requires the exact same attention to detail on all levels.”
“What we’re trying to do,” Olch said, “is truly reinvigorate the theater-going experience,” which he observed, has not evolved in decades. “For me, the challenge is to create a space that evokes the glamour of the movie theaters that I went to when I was growing up in Manhattan, places like The Beekman, The Plaza… places that were very special to me as a little boy that are literally all gone. Those are the places where I first fell in love with movies.”
Olch said the only comparable theaters to Metrograph now in New York are the Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives and the cinemas at Lincoln Center and BAM. The idea on the Lower East Side is to create a special experience for everyone walking through the front doors. “It will be like a carefully crafted performance,” he said. “The overall feel will be more curated than anything you would find in a standard movie theater.”
In the vestibule outside the two theaters, there will be old-fashioned red bulbs alerting visitors that a “screening is in progress.” The ushers will use a 1920s era phone to tell projectionists whether the sound and picture quality are up to standards. “It will be about the accumulation of little details,” Olch explained, “to make a first class type of experience” for the movie-goer.
The larger theater will have 175 seats and include a balcony. A more intimate theater is meant to accommodate an audience of 50. Metrograph is investing in high-end 35mm film projectors which, Olch said, will make the theater eligible to host special restored prints and archive quality prints. The cinema will also be able to screen digital movies.
The artistic director will be Jake Perlin, who founded a distribution company called The Film Desk and is programmer at large at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. “I feel he is at the vanguard of a new generation of film programming in New York and, frankly, in the world,” said Olch. The plan is to show both new releases and old films. A book shop, located on the second floor, will be overseen by Arthur Fournier, a prestigious rare and fine books dealer. The shop will feature texts, screenplays and artifacts related to filmmaking.
Olch said he wants the theater to become both an integral part of New York’s film community, as well as the local community. He envisions it as a venue for directors to screen their “daily” scenes, to host press screenings and full-fledged premieres. Metrograph is being set up as a place for producers and directors to hold meetings, and for writers to work on screenplays. “It will hopefully be a place where business is transacted,” Olch said. As for the local community, he’s met with staff at the Henry Street Settlement about creating a mentoring program for kids. There’s also talk about establishing one or more film clubs.
All of these plans have at least been somewhat complicated by a liquor license application for a ground floor cafe and a restaurant on the second level. Given the size of the facility and the riskiness of the project, some locals are worried about the prospect that the theater might morph into a raucous night club. Next Monday evening, the partners will go before CB3’s liquor licensing panel, asking board members to support a full bar on both floors — with operating hours until 4 a.m.
This past week, Metrograph CEO Ethan Oberman met with members of the SPaCE Block Association, and plans to meet with other block associations. During the SPaCE meeting, members expressed both enthusiasm for the concept but also concerns about potential noise, crowd control and ventilation issues from the kitchen. The neighborhood group and Metrograph are continuing to talk with hopes of an agreement on operating restrictions being struck by next week. It’s possible Olch and Oberman will compromise on some points, including the agreed-upon operating hours.
The cafe will be called “The Commissary.” Drawing on menus from the old MGM, United Artist and Paramount commissaries, the idea is to re-imagine classic dishes from Hollywood’s heyday. “Everyone ate there,” Olch noted, from A-list movie stars to members of the crew, meaning the food was simple and straightforward, but also high quality. “That’s our inspiration,” he explained. There will also be a separate “Writers Menu,” featuring items you can eat with one hand (while continuing to peck away at your script on the other).
Olch pointed out that both the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center and Alice Tully Hall have restaurants now. “Both have been instrumental in helping to create a much more vibrant atmosphere” at those institutions, he argued. “The cafe and restaurant are really a way to create a complete experience,” offering a place for people to go after seeing films. Another inspiration, Olch said, is the Bowery Hotel lobby, a quiet place where guests can talk and relax. “We’re showing films, serious films that are meant to inspire conversation,” he said. “It’s a space designed specifically for that experience.” Finally, he noted that there will be no waiting outside on Ludlow Street (there’s room to accommodate all guests in the lobby and restaurants; and no alcohol will be allowed in the theaters themselves.
Metrograph is expected to soft-open in February. We’ll let you know how things turn out at the community board meeting next week.