Back in February, Gothamist conducted interviews with programmers from five of the New York City's alternative, independent and repertory movie theaters. Today, a new member joins their ranks as the former Waverly Theater on 6th Avenue at 3rd Street has become transformed into the IFC Center to be managed and programmed by former Cowboy Pictures head John Vanco.
- John Vanco
- 37 years old
- Grew-up in Charlottesville, VA; now lives in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
- Vice President and General Manager of IFC Center
You've been a part of the New York film scene for a long time working for Miramax, Fine Line and New Yorker films and then starting Cowboy Pictures. Why do you think NYC needs the IFC Center, and what makes it unique among movie theaters, especially the arthouse circuit?
New York needs the IFC Center because there’s an insatiable appetite for great cinema in New York. I remember growing up in Charlottesville, VA, and reading through the film listings in the New Yorker and thinking it was fiction --- how could so many amazing programs of varied new and retro cinema all be playing in New York in one week?
There are always new ways to curate and present cinema that can open up film as an art form to different audiences. For instance, I do not know of a single commercial theater anywhere in the country that shows short films before all their features. This used to be a regular component of film programs, but no more. At the IFC center, we will show shorts before all our regular screenings and this is just one of the many ways that we will differentiate ourselves from what other movie theaters do.
It’s also a way in which our programming will both look back to the past and forward to the future. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to install high-definition digital projection technology in all three of our cinemas, which puts us heads-and-shoulders above other arthouse theaters in New York in terms of technology. It also gives us great advantages in terms of what we can show to audiences. As movie theaters across the country have gained some level of (usually low-end) video projection capability, 99% have exclusively used that capability to show ads to their audiences. At the IFC center, we’re not showing ads on screen. We’ve opted to use our technology for good not for evil. For the first calendar, we’re showing the short films of Jeff Scher.
Who is the IFC Center's target audience?
We’re straddling the divide between conventional first-run specialized venues (like the Landmark Sunshine and the Lincoln Plaza) and calendar houses (like Film Forum and the Walter Reade). We’re picking some programs from column a and some from column b: our audience is all of New York, but our local, core audience is Greenwich Village, and this is an extremely diverse population. We will do grindhouse midnight series, Euro-arthouse repertory, weekend classics series, young-skewing indie romantic comedies, and older-skewing sociopolitical docs. We hope, eventually, to have the kind of relationship to our audiences that Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza have. Those theaters have generated so much trust with their constituencies that filmgoers will just show up at those theaters and take a chance on a film playing there, because they know that if it’s there, it must be good. That provides extraordinary curatorial and curative powers to lift-up a worthy film and give it an audience that it deserves, but couldn’t earn on its own commercial merits.
The IFC Center is built on the site of the old Waverly Theater, and it took quite a while for this building to open. As someone with a background as a carpenter, did you ever get the urge to push the contractors out of the way, pick-up a hammer, and start putting stuff together yourself?
My background as a carpenter is an awfully obscure fact and fading memory -- that was a long time ago. But, yes, kind of -- being handy with tools and having confidence with basic rules of physics and engineering has been useful in participating in some of the problem-solving moments of the renovation. But I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by lots of experienced and talented specialists who have helped conquer all the construction challenges and make this such a beautiful place and such an architecturally successful mixing of the past and the present. I do look forward to the day in the very near future when my previously untapped talent for HVAC [Heating, ventilating and air-conditioning] systems programming and my opinions about the best way to cantilever a 40 year-old neon marquee sign from the ceiling are no longer relevant.
A lot of thought has been put into the physical environment and design of the overall complex as well as the individual theaters to help create a unique moviegoing experience for attendees. What kinds of things can people expect?
While I wish I could take credit for all the of stylish and thoughtful design touches that have been built into the IFC Center, I have only been on board with the project for one year, while many others have been working far longer. My role at this point is to bring operational considerations to bear on the previous design decisions that have been made.
IFC’s Jonathan Sehring and our architect, Larry Bogdanow, have been the principal minds behind the look and feel of the space. What I like most about what they’ve imagined and built is the very gentle tension they’ve created throughout the space between the old and the new. Wherever you are in the building, you’re constantly reminded that you’re in a nearly 200-year old building that’s also a state-of-the-art digital entertainment venue. You sit in the main theater waiting for the movie to start, looking up at the funky, mod purple inkadrain lighting panels, and the exposed brick and the 60-foot cathedral ceilings (from back when the building was a church), and then the movie starts, and you’re surrounded by digital surround sound, high-def or pristine 35mm projection, and beautiful, plush, French-designed Quinette seats. And that’s just in theater one.
Other than ownership, what influence and connection does IFC have to the theater? How independent (if at all) is the IFC Center from the rest of its corporate parent? How do you think the IFC brand and identity will help the theater, and vice-versa?
We have a great advantage in that we are part of the IFC brand which has a national and international reach. We will have access to certain kinds of media exposure that is rather extraordinary.
Although there has been some sporadic skepticism in the press about how much independence the IFC Center will have in terms of programming, my very strong and defined position is that this is a very competitive zone, so in order to be successful we absolutely, positively have to be responsive to our audience first. We will play a number of IFC features, but that’s in large part because we share the same brand and ethos: an independent spirit and a respect for the vision of filmmakers. Keep in mind that we stand for the ideas behind the IFC brand --- not just for the particular titles that IFC Films is handling at any given time. That brand is about an abiding love for cinema and the vital significance of aesthetics and storytelling over the almighty dollar.
Further, we will play many, many more films from other distributors than from IFC. There have been situations in the past where indie distributors have set up specific theaters to just show their movies (Thalia/Fine Line/early 90s; Gotham/Miramax/late 90s) and they did not work at all. That’s not the model we’re following.
Cowboy's releases reflected your desire to support films you were passionate about that other distributors may not have found as commercially viable. When programming for IFC Center where you're not just responsible to your own tastes but to a pretty large corporate parent as well, do you find yourself having to balance your creative and critical preferences with the commercial realities?
When Noah Cowan and I started Cowboy Pictures, we were always rather delighted that we could decide to acquire movies because of the passion we had for them. In fact, that was, more or less, our sole guideline for acquisitions. Every once in a while, reality crept in via a service deal or some other compromise, as it does for every company trying to stay alive in a commercial environment, but generally speaking we were always driven by artistic instead of by commercial designs.
With the IFC center, we certainly are a part of a larger corporate parent, so we have to be fiscally responsible in particular ways, but our initial and primary responsibility is to build a successful business. In our case, our business model is one that is based on a stylish and aggressive presentation of important and unique works of cinematic art. If we were located in the middle of nowhere, then perhaps that wouldn’t be a viable business model, but we’re located in the heart of Greenwich Village so such high-minded artistic goals can actually be part of responsible and realistic business plans.
Which is why I feel I have a dream job.
What kind of programs can we expect to see at IFC Center in the coming months and going forward?
We are not looking to copy exactly what any other theater is doing. We will do some repertory, but we are not looking to step into the Film Forum’s shoes. Bruce Goldstein can program four ass-kicking weeks of Paramount Pre-Code (1930-34), but New York doesn’t need another theater that does exactly that. We will be a mix of spirited repertory, first-run specialty, guest-curated programs, midnight movies, and short films. We will have our own identity.
Our programs will not just be targeted to film geeks. We will play adventurous new movies for all sorts of audiences looking for something challenging, something different, something better than the sequels and TV-show remakes that the Hollywood media factory circulates through the marketplace.
You mentioned having guest programmers and special celebrity programmed evenings. Do you have any lined-up already?
Jonathan Lethem is planning to present “King Of Comedy” and “Ace in the Hole” on July 7 while David Gordon Green has slotted “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Thunderbolt And Lightfoot” for August 8. More interesting thinking-celeb-type folks will continue this monthly program in the fall.
Do you plan to offer and depend on membership/subscriptions like many of the other programmed theaters in town?
Yes, we will have a membership at some point in the near future – probable early 2006. There will be many great membership benefits including exclusive screenings and discounted tickets. For the time being we have an email newsletter and a "Ten-Pack" discount ticket pass, which cost $85 for ten movies -- more than $2 off per movie.
You used to program The Screening Room (now Tribeca Cinemas). How are you approaching programming of the IFC Center differently?
The Screening Room was a great project, and Noah Cowan and I had a tremendous time with it when we programmed it at Cowboy. However, there were moments when we felt like we were felling trees in the proverbial forest. I have very fond memories of The Screening Room, and I have great affection for the people we worked with there, but there was always a sense that that particular location was impossible. Location, location, location.
The IFC Center, on the other hand, is at what I am now calling the Crossroads of the World (West Fourth Street subway: B, D, F, V, A, C, E). We’re very respectful of what the Waverly was for generations of New Yorkers who fondly recall it as an important arthouse theater and as a great neighborhood theater. We hope to continue that tradition.
Most of your background is on the other side of the distributor/exhibitor relationship. Why did you decide to leave the distribution world and become one of the people you used to whom you formerly tried to sell?
I had a great run in distribution, and perhaps I’ll return to it someday, but it was exhausting to run a small company, even when Noah was there running it with me. We could never afford a big, professional, supportive infrastructure, and that always made me frustrated because I couldn’t personally spend enough time on the film stuff – acquisitions, marketing, publicity, even distribution.
These days I like to say that it took a job as great as this IFC Center gig to pull me out of retirement.
Does having to assess the artistic merits of film for a living ever ruin them as entertainment for you?
Not at all – I would say it enhances the cinematic pleasures.
How many films do you watch in an average year? Since you program all the new releases as well as the other special events and series at IFC Center, how will you have the time to keep up ?
I used to see a lot more movies than I do now, but back then it was spread out pretty evenly over the year. Now I catch up in big spurts at film festivals, where I’ll cover dozens of movies over the course of a week.
Programming the "Waverly Midnight" and "Weekend Classics" series are fun because when I watch or re-watch those great, usually older movies to make selections, I can now watch them on the big screen after hours. DVD is not an appropriate presentation format for the public, but it’s a lot more fun to see it on our big screens than at home on a 20” TV.
Do you have an all-time favorite film and/or filmmaker?
Many of Cowboy Pictures’ releases – La Ciénaga, Morvern Callar, Benjamin Smoke – are among my favorite films of all time, but I don’t have a single favorite.
Last week, after our big grand opening party, some friends stayed after and we christened the IFC center with a late night screening of one of the best of Akira Kurosawa's films: Stray Dog. It was a great show.
You've managed to work your entire career in New York without doing the LA thing. Did you ever consider making the move?
Nah. I think life is too easy there. New Yorkers are interesting in part because you’re constantly challenged by the improbability and artificiality of living in this paved, vertiginous environment. It keeps us all especially sharp.
Most people consider Los Angeles the center of the movie industry, but New York seems to have more theaters and organizations that celebrate film as art and from a historical or even academic perspective. What about New York allows for there to be so many places like IFC Center – Film Forum, the Walter Reade, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, the Thalia, BAM, etc.?
You can live in New York and inhabit a nearly pure world of film. There are people here whose lives revolve around movies. When I moved to new York in the early '90s, I was one of those people. I saw way too many movies during my first three years in New York. After that I started seeing fewer movies and having more of a social life, but it’s always nice knowing that on any given day there is something great playing somewhere. I no longer obsessively keep track of all the different viewing options for all the art theaters across the city for every single day, but I know there are film-geeky 20-somethings that have taken my place. They gravitate to New York City.
Ten things to know about John:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Ten years ago, when I moved from a 190 square foot studio to a 250 square foot studio and needed furniture to fill out all the extra new space, I was so happy to find a handful of very dinky but very useful dining room chairs and side tables on West 54th Street. I was happy to get rid of them later, but they were the only chairs at the time, and I was grateful to have them.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
There have been various periods when it was Tower Records, The Strand, Academy Records, The Other Room on Perry Street, Jane Street Tavern, and of course movie theaters like the Film Forum when they long ago got tired of giving me passes.
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I’ve always been a bit of an obsessive collector, but that’s actually been curbed a bit by having great jobs that have kept me busy. In between jobs it’s easier to fall into collecting, and obsessing, and tracking and accumulating, but when I’m working all the time that stuff falls to the wayside.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
I find it hard to pass by the Gray’s Papaya at 8th Street and 6th Avenue when I catch the F-train late at night.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I rarely do it, but I really enjoy the main reading rooms at the New York Public Library.
Back in the day, I loved going to Bryant Park for the Monday night film series in the summer. In fact, it was something I first did when I was an intern at Fine Line Features, and I was sent to reserve space for my bosses. Then the next summer, when I worked at New Yorker films, I was so impressed with myself when I could boss the interns to go save space in the park for us bosses.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Not counting video, I saw over one thousand movies in my first three years of residence.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Crinkly deli bags during film screenings.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
The end of Cowboy Pictures was no fun. Not at all.
Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
I actually have lots of square footage – I live in a big barn. I’d like to have some extremely basic HVAC --- some control of the air temperature would be nice.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
My favorite NYC story of the last week is:
Two nights ago, I was standing in the lobby of the IFC Center around 8pm with Miranda July during an event we were hosting. Miranda is doing a bunch of Q&A’s for this weekend’s Me and You and Everyone We Know shows, so we were chatting about what else was going on at the IFC Center. She said that she was hoping to see [Yasujiro] Ozu’s I Was Born, But.... I was telling her how unique and hilarious the film was and how different it was from Ozu’s later films, but we were interrupted by a bearded gentleman who was walking through the lobby. He stopped to introduce himself and tell Miranda how much he enjoyed her work. It was loud in the lobby and Miranda missed when the guy said his name so she asked me who he was after he left. I told her it was Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, and directed American Gigolo and The Comfort Of Strangers.
Then I had a flash, did an internal double-take and ran out the door after him because Paul Schrader also wrote a great book on Ozu: "Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dryer". Paul was still there on the sidewalk so I introduced myself and told him about the Ozu retrospective we’re running. Then I asked would he, umm, well, maybe, perhaps, be interested in doing some introductions to pictures in the series. He shot back, without skipping a beat, asking when we were playing Autumn Afternoon and Late Spring. And so, it looks like Paul Schrader will indeed come join us in presenting these wonderful films to our audiences.
Then, I went back into the lobby, apologized to Miranda for running out on her, and tried, failingly, to describe how freaky it was to have an Ozu conversation interrupted by Paul Schrader just days before showing my favorite Ozu film (with LIVE accompaniment). And then, by chance, I’m able to cajole one the small handful of smart, original NYC thinkers on Ozu to come introduce some of my retrospective screenings.
Miranda listened patiently and politely as I went through my little NYC film moment.
You had to be there.
Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know opens today at the new IFC Center. You can ask Miranda where she keeps all the awards she’s won for the film as she will be doing Q&As at most of the Friday and Saturday evening screenings. Other special guests this weekend include documentary icon D.A. Pennebaker who will be at tonight’s 8:10 screening of Don’t Look Back and William Lustig, who will introduce the midnight showings of Maniac, which kicks off the “New York After Dark” program of the "Waverly Midnight" series. The "Weekend Classics" series will be introduced by Linda Hoaglund, plus there will be live musical accompaniment for Ozu’s I Was Born, But... For more information, visit the still developing website at www.ifccenter.com or call the box office at 212-924-7771.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei