Picture This: Reinventing the Single-Screen Cinema in Westchester

GFI chats with Global Lens partner The Picture House about history, change, and making the switch from commercial theater to arthouse cinematheque

A single screen, many stories

Last week we posted about the unfortunate closure of the Red Vic Movie House, one of San Francisco’s most unique and celebrated arthouse theaters for the past 31 years. As an antidote to that sad event, today we bring you a profile of The Picture House, Westchester County’s gorgeous single-screen theater that specializes in showing the best in independent, international and classical cinema.

A new screening-partner of ours, The Picture House hosted Global Lens 2011 last month, which of course included A USEFUL LIFE, Federico Veiroj’s bittersweet homage to cinephile culture. But unlike the film’s Cinemateca Uruguay, which is forced to close after the archive fails to make financial ends meet (and as other theaters across the United States are actively moving away from arthouse fare in favor of the latest blockbusters), the Picture House recently made the bold decision to a switch from a first-run commericial theater to an arthouse cinematheque. This past week we caught up with Jennifer Christman, Executive Director of The Picture House, to discuss this impressive move and the future of their institution.

Can you give our readers a brief overview of The Picture House, its history and audience, and what makes it unique as an exhibition venue in Westchester County?

The 1921 Pelham Picture House, located in southern Westchester County, is one of the oldest, continuously operating movie theaters in the suburban-NYC region. For most of its existence it was a 400-seat first-run commercial single-screen house with a local patron base coming from Pelham and proximate areas of Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and the Bronx. It was built for silent films and to this day has an organ pit and brass rail that sits at the foot of its (also still existing) silent film screening wall.

I’m guessing the organ pit and screening wall don’t see much use nowadays?

They do not! However, they are completely preserved and intact and will remain so.

Regardless, it sounds like the Picture House is something of a landmark or heritage site for the city of Pelham.

It has been a witness to history—human history and film history. The Picture House survived the Great Depression, was a source of news from the front during the second World War, and was the place that many baby boomers grew up and saw the great films of the 60s and 70s. Like so many of the ”main street” theaters in U.S. towns, it could not compete with the increasing numbers of neighboring “plexed” theaters and new mulitplexes bought up or built by commercial chains.

The renovation and preservation of The Picture House has been a community affair

In the early 2000s the theater was still privately owned but failing. Ultimately the business was operating at such a loss that the owners had to sell the building. When the theater was to be sold and torn down to make way for a drive-through bank, Pelham residents came together and rallied their community to save the theater. They formed a nonprofit organization to preserve the theater and raised enough money to buy the building.

In saving the theater, the still nascent Picture House Board of Directors saw not only an opportunity to create an independent film center in southern Westchester—they viewed it as a responsibility. When I joined The Picture House in 2006 that was exactly the vision I had for The Picture House and set about hiring a team and working with a passionate Board of Directors to redefine the role of The Picture House in its community and make it a place for serious film and film education.

Speaking of that, who is on your “team?”

I report to our Board of Directors, chaired by John Calvelli, and work closely with John and many of the leaders of our Board on matters related to Finance, Development, Strategic Positioning, you name it. Besides me, the staff team consists of: Lizzie Cooper, Director of Development; Sara Gold, Associate Director of Development; Beth Manspeizer, Director of Education Programs; Janet Williams, Director of Finance; and Kevin Losani, Theater Manager and All-Around Fixer and Doer of Things Too Numerous to Mention. I am delighted to report that we just hired Mr. Ilya Tovbis to be our new Director of Film Programming. Ilya comes to us from the JCC of Manhattan’s Israel Film Center and starts on August 1. He succeeds Will McCord, formerly of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who worked for us for the past two and a half years. In addition to this core team we have a fabulous PR consultant, Linda Corcoran; a social media maven, Joan Roman of Uranium Partners; Gary Wong of Gary Wong Designs, a terrifically talented graphics and web professional; and our fantastic film booker of many years, Adam Birnbaum of Nova Theatre Circuit. In addition, we have a dedicated and passionate house staff who welcome patrons and make them feel like they are part of a film community—not a plain old consumer! We are extremely fortunate to have this extended team of people who care about—and, yes, obsess over—The Picture House!

And this is the first year you’re hosting the Global Lens film series. Can you talk about your partnership with the Global Film Initiative, and how Global Lens fits your mission?

This was the first year we worked with GFI and presented the Global Lens Film series. The series fits our mission of being southern Westchester’s premier venue for art film and high-quality motion pictures from all over the world. Global Lens has a remarkable slate of films and opens audience members’ eyes to people, places, and stories that are not generally seen on movie screens in this country. Our partnership with GFI came about through another partnership, with The Brightwater Fund. We sent them a proposal for underwriting Global Lens and they were extremely enthusiastic about bringing Global Lens to southern Westchester. Because of their support we were able to work with GFI to select nine excellent films!

Well, I guess timing is everything. We recently learned that The Picture House “converted” from a commercial, first-run theater to an arthouse cinema—which is perfect for Global Lens. But why the change?

The gorgeous interior of The Picture House

It’s all true! This year we completed a full restoration of the interior of the theater. We reopened the “new” old theater in April of this year and simultaneously made the complete switch from a hybrid programming model that included commercial art and some first-run commercial movies to a calendar house model and booking all art and indie films on our big screen. This model allows us to maximize variety—a different film every week—and give us badly-needed flexibility to program our numerous special series, including TopDocs (documentaries hot off the festival circuit), Reel Insider (preview screenings of art and indie narrative films), Women on Film (films by, for, and about women), Sunday Essentials, and An Evening with…, among others. On the horizon, we will expand The Picture House by adding a 75-100 seat theater and larger, dedicated film education institute.

Any chance you’ll resurrect the Picture House’s silent film tradition?

Funny you should ask. For our post-restoration reopening, we screened Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL with live musical accompaniment. It was a packed house and we will definitely do it again!

Looking down the line, what kind of impact do you think The Picture House will have on Westchester County?

Our potential impact is huge because we appeal to many different constituents: Individuals who crave the community experience of film and the artistic and intellectual stimulation that comes from hearing from directors like Andrew Rossi and Aaron Schock. Lovers of historic theaters (who are so often nostalgic for the theaters of their youth). Former urban dwellers who will be so thrilled to have an alternative to commercial chains, a place where one is not just another consumer but rather a member and part of an institution. Adults who want the intellectual stimulation and entertainment that comes from having a Wesleyan professor visit every week for six weeks, teaching a class about Hollywood Masterpieces of the 1940s (a series we just concluded). Middle school kids who are excited by screenwriting and story creation and acting on film. I could go on and on about how we stand to make an impact and how tremendous it will be!

And what about the immediate future—what’s on the Picture House’s calendar for the rest of summer and fall?

Also funny you should ask. One element that had to be “value engineered” out of our restoration project was a stage for post-screening programs—filmmaker Q&As and the like. Previously we put guests on directors’ chairs at the foot of the theater. It was okay for the most part but viewing for folks seated in the back wasn’t great, so we were very much looking forward to having a proper, elevated stage. Unfortunately, we had many unforeseen repairs to deal with—for example, our roof was a disaster. Result was that we had to eliminate the stage. At our April 90th Birthday Gala, after the live auction, we did a paddle raise to get donations for completing the stage. In less than 3 minutes we had raised what we needed to build it! So we are taking these quiet weeks of late July and August to closed the main auditorium to add the (to be called) Community Stage. Come the last week of August we will be open again. Very soon, Ilya will be working with Adam to book our regular runs and filling the calendar with TopDoc and Reel Insider screenings, and other special programs.

It’s only a few short weeks away, but we can’t wait until the end of August when the new-and-improved Picture House reopens its doors to a very fortunate Westchester public. So keep your eyes on their calendar to see what kind of programming and special programs this theater and its devoted team has got in store. It’s sure to be an engaging, thought-provoking and movie-filled fall in Pelham!

Talk back: Send an email to gfi-info@globalfilm.org telling us about your own local arthouse theater and one of your most memorable experiences there, and one lucky film-lover will win an advance DVD copy of A USEFUL LIFE (which won’t be commercially released until 2012)!

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