Film

Q&A: Jon Dieringer Talks Founding Screen Slate and New York Moviegoing

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As New York’s arthouse and repertory scene heats up, more and more cinephiles have come to rely on Screen Slate. It’s an invaluable website that keeps track of New York City image culture happenings, in an easily navigable calendar format – a godsend in a world where every theater, museum, and gallery has its own website, its own navigation logic, and its own (often confusing) search functionality. By contrast, Screen Slate is easy to use, and absurdly thorough. Billing itself as “New York’s only comprehensive listing resource dedicated to the moving image in all its forms,” it tracks not just repertory and independent films, but also microcinema and gallery screenings, as well as exhibitions related to film, video and electronic media. A daily email newsletter, delivered every morning, offers up the day’s listings; the website itself can let you see (and plan) further into the future. Screen Slate was the brainchild of Jon Dieringer, a writer and programmer who initially started it as a simple blog, but who has since helped shepherd it into a website that also features lots of smart writing by contributors. We talked to him about the site, how it grew, and the current state of New York film culture.

How did Screen Slate get started?

I just felt like it was something that was lacking. I’d always do Google searches for, you know, ‘NYC repertory film calendar,’ and was really surprised that nothing existed. I have this kind of quasi-OCD need to keep track of everything, so I thought, “Why not put together something that might also be useful to other people who are looking for the same kind of thing?” I was working freelance in film production at the time, so I had some time on my hands. I thought it would be good to try and pick up some new skills by taking some kind of how-to-build-a-website type tutorial. [Laughs] There was definitely a spirit of naïveté there. I officially kind of put everything online in February, actually on Valentine’s Day 2011.

This seems like one effect of the decline of print media. Once upon a time, there would be listing sections in newspapers and magazines; I wrote for one for many years. But even as papers and magazines migrated online, very often they didn’t fully carry over listings.

In print, you’re not really bound to a fixed kind of data model. When I started doing Screen Slate, it was just an empty blog post where I just manually typed everything. When we did a Kickstarter a few years ago for the new site, we had to come up with a data model where we could basically put everything in forms and then have it automatically format things, and it was way more complicated than anyone really imagined.

Can you talk more about what Screen Slate looked like when you first started?

I began by compiling venues – not just your more obvious venues like Anthology or MoMA, but also cultural centers like the Rubin Museum or the French Institute. When I had all that information in place and was getting a feel for the calendars, I just created a really simple WordPress website where I made little pages for all of the venues that I wanted to cover. Every day, I literally just manually typed out the information. I had a certain way of formatting it and I would link to the page I’d made for the venue. Another thing that happened early on is a friend of mine realized that you could sign up to get an automatic email of every post. That established the thing that a lot of people know Screen Slate for, which is the daily email.

Also, from the beginning I always wanted the site to be ad-free, and to date it’s always been volunteer-run. Because it is inherently kind of a promotional thing, I didn’t want the focus to be directed by advertising dollars — I didn’t want to be calling more attention to films or venues that had the resources to promote themselves more than small DIY venues. So I’ve always tried to conceptualize the site in terms of a service for filmgoers, as opposed to a promotional extension of venues. That seems minor, but I think it’s a significant philosophical orientation. If you’re trying to get people to think outside of the canon, but you’re running banner ads for a Francois Truffaut box set, it can send mixed signals.

That must have made it a challenge to expand the site.

The site eventually got to a certain point where I needed to hire actual designers and programmers. I think it was in 2015, we did a Kickstarter campaign and raised money to hire some developers, who are definitely working at a generous rate. We relaunched the site in June 2016. And today, it’s more like a group of people running Screen Slate – a circle of fellow volunteers doing everything from writing to helping out with the listings, and trying to conceptualize and then execute future plans.

You also got involved with programming along the way?

Around the time I started Screen Slate, I got involved in Spectacle – initially just presenting programs under the banner of Screen Slate. I eventually dropped that promotional pretense, and it was just pure programming. The idea was to find the things that were worth screening that no one had really heard of – some of it goofy and irreverent, some of it forgotten, brilliant gems. I loved that spirit of community – it’s the kind of place where when you walk in you’re having a direct interaction with the person who’s not only taking your $5, but is also the projectionist and the programmer, and maybe also cut the trailer that’s on the website. Screen Slate now programs series at Anthology Film Archives, but outside of a microcinema kind of context, it’s hard to have that level of interaction between programmer and audience.

This seems like a fortuitous time for Screen Slate to be fully operational, with so many new theaters and screens opening. More than ever, we need something to centralize all this information and make it easily navigable.

When I first started it, just by coincidence or serendipity, there was a lot more DIY and microcinema activity — places like Spectacle, and Microscope Gallery. Light Industry was coming back, and UnionDocs was growing a lot. Now, five or six years later, there’s a growth of more commercial activity in the repertory world – the Quad reopening, Metrograph, BAM is expanding, Drafthouse. I’m not sure how one would really be able to keep track of all this stuff without some kind of central specialized calendar. But having a model that can represent screening data can get really complicated. You’re looking at series, you’re looking at particular films, but maybe a film is paired with a short. Maybe it’s paired with a short at some screenings but not other screenings. And I think also programming becomes more sophisticated, with people doing more interesting shows where they’re pairing things with all kinds of shorts. Or something that might be considered more in the realm of video art with a 35mm feature film. It can become difficult to represent that information.

You get a pretty thorough view of the New York independent, arthouse, and repertory film scene. Is there anything you think is missing? What are New York moviegoers not getting enough of?

I don’t know if New York really is missing anything. But there are always going to be blind spots, and there are always new discoveries. There’s been a generational turnover in terms of programmers, and there are a lot of programmers who are more aware of that. There’s more awareness of filmmakers who come from different backgrounds. And that often leads to more thoughtful and interesting programming. Something like the Black Women Filmmakers series at BAM had some really remarkable stuff that I don’t think was on anyone’s radars, for example.