“The economics of an arthouse cinema are not kind, I’ll admit,” says C. Mason Wells, Director of Programming at Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village, New York.
Nonetheless, the Quad—an age-old relic of New York City’s independent theater scene—has been recently revamped and retooled to meet the demands of a rapidly changing theatrical exhibition landscape. The goal? “To find a way to make our programming work financially, not alter our mission or ambitions. The movies—and their presentation—must remain the essential element,” says Wells.
Since being purchased by real estate developer, film distributor and founder of Cohen Media Group (CMG), Charles S. Cohen, in 2014, the Quad has readied itself to host New York’s indie-supporting theatrical community alongside the likes of Alamo Drafthouse, Metrograph, Nitehawk Cinema, Film Forum and others situated in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Although the space’s prestige had diminished for a while as it became a rental house that offered start-up moviemakers various DIY opportunities, Cohen’s activity with CGM—which recently picked up its first Oscar for Asghar Fahardi’s The Salesman—and his home video restoration outfit, Cohen Film Collection, is reassuring to film lovers that the Quad is back on the right track to quality programming and financial sustainability.
MovieMaker caught up with Wells to discuss just how vital theatrical distribution and exhibition are in our increasingly streamable age of spectatorship, and he cued us in on what they’re up to to make the Quad a must-frequent spot for east coast indie aficionados.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why is now the best time to reopen a venue like the Quad Cinema? Where are we, these days, with theatrical exhibition?
C. Mason Wells, Director of Programming, Quad Cinema (CMW): With the increasing accessibility of technology, there are more movies being made now outside the system than ever before, so we need more movie theater screens than ever to show these films properly, in a communal setting.
It’s cyclical—a generation or two removed never had the luxury of watching films at their convenience at home. Then the arrival of home video altered the landscape. Now you have a generation raised watching films largely on TVs and on computers, and for them, there’s novelty in going out and having that theatrical experience. No matter what, seeing movies with a group of strangers remains a special, powerful thing.
MM: What are some misconceptions you think filmmakers, distributors or even audiences have about theatrical exhibition these days?
CMW: That it doesn’t matter. Theatrical exhibition remains so critical to creating a new film’s profile. Amazon Studios have been especially shrewd about this, recognizing the value that traditional theatrical rollouts retain. Do films like Moonlight or La La Land or Manchester By the Sea capture the zeitgeist in the same way if they go directly to streaming? I don’t think so.
MM: What are your broader programming missions and goals with the Quad?
CMW: The Quad was New York’s first multi-screen theater when it opened in 1972. That meant choice—more movies, appealing to more people. It’s very democratic and broad-minded, and I want our programming to continue to reflect that mentality. We could screen anything from pre-Code musicals to maligned ’80s indie horror and you wouldn’t bat an eye.
MM: What are some of the challenges the Quad will face as it moves forward?
CMW: A big challenge, for any venue that cares about 35mm presentation, continues to be access to materials—finding screenable prints, and when you do, convincing the people who own them (whether they be distributors, archives or collectors) to let you actually show them. But we feel that dedication is important, and the added cost is worth it.
MM: Are there other institutions you look to as models for the Quad—whether they be other standalone theaters around the U.S. or even theater chains that fall under the arthouse or indie category?
CMW: I’m inspired by so many of my peers here in New York alone. There’s an incredibly vibrant community of cinemas; we may occasionally have overlapping interests and taste, but each of us has our own unique look and sensibility and feeling. It’s a great time to be seeing movies in this city.
MM: How open is the Quad to working with filmmakers trying to self-distribute their films? What advice do you have for these filmmakers?
CMW: I’m certainly open to working with enterprising, self-distributing filmmakers, but they face a big uphill battle against films with the backing of a company, however small. If I like a film, though, I can recommend it to someone at these companies to release. It’s mutually beneficial, because I know the film has support and the distributor knows it’s guaranteed an engagement. But this comes down to liking a film first and foremost and finding a way to make it work. Four-walling goes against that very idea, and thus is of no interest to me.
MM: From the selection of films you have lined up in the near future, what are you most excited to present? What should audiences be looking forward to?
CMW: So much. I’m especially proud of our May calendar, which really shows the scope of our programming goals. It features retrospectives of Goldie Hawn (who, like many comediennes, isn’t taken as seriously as she should be) and the great composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, plus the New York films of genre maestro Larry Cohen and a 25-film series on the immigrant experience in America (which includes the 1978 Superman, of course). I think it shows the breadth of what the Quad is all about. MM
Visit the Quad Cinema’s website here for screening times and other information.