The Waverly Theater, at Sixth Avenue and West 4th Street, will forever be known as the movie house that, in 1976, kicked off the most enduring cult classic in cinema history when it began midnight screenings of an unsuccessful 20th Century Fox release called The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Its recent legacy hasn’t been so memorable. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Waverly was bought and sold several times, divided from one grand balcony theater into twin screens; in 2001, it was shut down by its parent company, Cablevision, owner of the Clearview Cinemas chain.
While local cinephiles saw the Waverly’s shuttered marquee as another sad relic of the city’s once thriving art house scene, another Cablevision subsidiary—the Independent Film Channel—has been working to restore the institution as a force in New York film culture. On June 17, after three and a half years of renovations and delays, the IFC Center will finally open its doors to the public with the premiere of Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, a film produced and distributed by IFC that won prizes at Sundance and Cannes.
The center is the brainchild of IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring, who originally envisioned it as an “IFC version of Radio City,” complete with a production facility and film school. Those plans were scaled back considerably, although two editing suites have been installed upstairs. The old Waverly, however, has been given the full makeover, one that should impress even the most hardcore theater snob. The 220-seat main screen and the 120-seat balcony theater have been tricked out with plush seating and state-of-the-art projection booths. IFC also expanded into the old leather goods building next door, adding a third 70-seat theater and a restaurant.
Managing the center is John Vanco, a highly regarded specialty film veteran whose distribution company, Cowboy Pictures, closed in 2003 and whom Sehring had been courting since the project’s inception. Vanco plans to combine high-profile first-run releases with a repertory calendar that he will program himself. Other special events, including monthly movie nights with guest curators, are also scheduled. All features will be preceded by shorts.
“When I think about what I want this theater to be and how I want us to interact with the people in this neighborhood, I think about the Lincoln Plaza and the Film Forum,” says Vanco. “At those theaters, people will show up on a Tuesday or Friday night and just see what they haven’t seen, because if it’s there they know it’s going to be good. What that means is that the identity of the theater in many cases supersedes the identity of the films. Ultimately, that’s what we like to do. We want to give people a reason not to have another Netflix evening.” While Vanco admits that IFC productions and releases will get preferential treatment, he insists that the center will not serve as a mere clearinghouse for IFC titles.
So far, reaction among the New York film community seems supportive if a bit wary. “We’re all dividing up a pie, but it’s a very big pie,” says Film Forum director Karen Cooper. “Knowing John I’m sure they’ll show good films, and I welcome him back to the business. I want to be very clear that I’m not being hostile, but I think it’s important to note that people have to make compromises when they’re part of a larger enterprise, especially if those enterprises have an interest in producing and distributing films.” To help ensure the center’s street cred, Sehring has lined up an advisory board that includes Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, John Sayles, Errol Morris, and Rebecca Miller. “Someone will always complain about corporations trying to brand independent filmmaking,” says Sehring. “All I can say to that is, we’re not trying to corporatize anyone’s vision, especially not the filmmakers we work with.”
Mark Urman, head of independent distributor THINKFilm’s theatrical division, says that “we can’t ignore that this is a multimedia conglomerate trying to expand their brand,” but is willing to cut IFC and Vanco some slack for now. “John maintains he’s not simply going to be shilling for the channel, and I think we have to take him at his word. If he programs with a real sense of what the audience likes, there literally cannot be a downside. Manhattan has been woefully underscreened for a long time—we need more theaters like this, plain and simple.”
One potential source of controversy surrounding the center became apparent at last week’s opening gala. A group of picketers from IATSE Local 306 gathered outside and handed out leaflets denouncing IFC’s decision not to pursue a contract with union projectionists. “We’re not trying to get jobs where none existed—we had people at the old Waverly, and we have people at every one of the other theaters in Greenwich Village,” union president Michael Goucher told the Voice on Monday. “No one can say at this point how it will resolve, but we presume we’re putting some pressure on them. The picketing is going to give them a black eye, especially in a neighborhood like Greenwich Village.” IFC declined to comment.