By Steve Weinstein
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By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
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When we talk about movies, we must also talk about moviegoing, which means we really should talk about chairs. There are 110 of them at Ocularis, a Sunday-night art-house series at the Galapagos Arts & Performance Space in Williamsburg. Volunteers arrive early to help set them up. "It reminds me of where I used to see movies back in Ireland, where the cinema doubled as a discotheque during the week," says Ocularis director Donal O'Ceilleachair. At the Collective Unconscious experimental theater on the Lower East Side, the Tuesday-night audiences can place the 72 folding chairs however they want as long as they don't get in the way of the five projectors that run simultaneously. At Cinema Classics, the caféscreening room warehouse on East 11th Street, viewers settle into thrones smuggled down from a Jehovah's Witness church upstate. And inside the new Union Square gigaplex, the armrests retract vertically so that enterprising couples can get horizontal.
These are bright times for cinephiles there are more seats now in New York for seeing classic, risky, and even conventional filmmaking than there have been in years, ever since the closure of legendary venues like the Collective for Living Cinema and the Bleecker Street Cinema in the early '90s. For a fiver, you can catch vintage Kieslowski, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even a double bill of Emile de Antonio's Weathermen interview Underground paired with the Nixon "Checkers" speech. This cinema resurgence "is a good thing," says Karen Cooper, director of the nonprofit Film Forum. "We live in a great big metropolis. We welcome them."
But the arrangement is about to get a lot more crowded. Sunshine Cinemas, a five screen, 1000-seat art-house theater, is scheduled to open this July at 139 Houston Street, between Eldridge and Forsyth streets. Aimed to take on the Angelika up the street, the stadium-style theaters are a 50-50 venture between an ambitious Web development company called Sunshine Amalgamedia, and Landmark Theatres, a nationwide alternative-film chain. "Landmark will be programming the films and operating the theater," says Tim Nye, the co-CEO of Sunshine, which has a staff of 22. "We'll get the benefits of the marquee." And a cut of the hefty proceeds. Recently, the Angelika ranked as one of the highest-grossing theaters (per seat) in the country. Obviously, the Sunshine multiplex, which will cost between $5 million and $10 million to build, is "a cash flow venture," says Sunshine CFO and co-CEO John O. Morisano.
Sunshine Cinemas isn't the first mark Nye has made on the city, but it's likely to be his first hugely profitable one. Back in 1991, Nye founded the nonprofit Threadwaxing Space, a strictly experimental performance and visual arts space in Soho. (He still serves as chairman of the board.) Then he created SonicNet, an electronic bulletin board that became an interactive music and webcast site, and which was eventually bought by cable company TCI.
His current four-year-old company, initially called Sunshine Interactive Networks (sinner.com), kicked off with great expectations of cross-media pollination. But the company's $1 millionplus flagship project, an interactive game underwritten by Microsoft, got temporarily scotched when Gates et al. abruptly halted their creative investments in 1998. The company has since undergone a major "refocusing," broadening from online to pretty much everywhere else. Tuesday night, Sunshine held its "coming out ball" announcing the name change and a full slate of interactive TV and film projects, like a potential public-television series with Ken Auletta, a TV show with Ira Glass of "This American Life," and a film, The Citizen, now in production in Costa Rica and New York. "We're a whirling dervish of media," says Nye.
The history of the Sunshine Cinema testifies to the new direction. Nye, who has leased the Houston Street site (once the home of the Tupac graffito portrait) for over three years, had hoped to turn it into a multimedia performance studio. There were rumblings that New York might have its first all-media atelier, like Moscow's Café Pittoresque, which hosted the rambunctious constructivists in 1917. But Nye decided on the cinema, a less risky gamble. Still, it comes with its own potential complications: Sunshine Amalgamedia now produces films and owns a cinema. Morisano assures that the company will get no "sweetheart deal" to screen its own work. "We'd run the risk of alienating the film community," he says.
The city is now filling with folks like Nye, Web developers antsy for better screens than computer monitors. Theresa Duncan, a CD-ROM auteur, made the jump to digital film with a one-hour fashion fable, The History of Glamour, which debuted at a packed gallery last fall. The success swung her a three-project development deal at VH1. (Long an independent, she now serves as Sunshine's director of digital media on its interactive TV and online projects.) Design shop Funny Garbage (funnygarbage.com) produced the Morcheeba "Summertime" video and is currently working on Web- and TV-based animations for the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Local conspiracy theorist Richard Metzger is hosting a TV show for British Television, produced by the team from his Web site (disinfo.com). According to Duncan, the migration is a result of the "bandwidth" issue. "The things I want to do just can't be done yet" on the Web, she says. Peter Girardi, Funny Garbage's style visionary and president, agrees: "You're sitting there at your computer and saying, 'This .gif file is 12K too big.' After a while, that gets frustrating."