Waverly Theater Re-Born as IFC Center

The legendary Waverly Theater at Sixth Avenue and West Third Street in Greenwich Village shut its doors almost four years ago. Tonight, it will re-open as a lavishly renovated three-screen movie theater run by the Independent Film Channel. WNYC’s Alicia Zuckerman has more.

REPORTER: The IFC Center— as the theater is now called —has seats that were flown in from France, organic popcorn served with truffle butter, a 70-seat theater filled with love seats, and, in the main theater, a 49-foot high ceiling.

BOGDONOW: The Waverly was a mess of a theater.

REPORTER: At the preview opening last week, the project’s architect Larry Bogdonow reminisced about his movie-going days at the Waverly.

BOGDONOW: … and I remember we used to come see films like El Topo here back in the 70s and stand in line with Abbie Hoffman, and then it became a crummy theater that didn’t show good film. And so, when they asked me to do this, I thought: The Waverly?!

REPORTER: The Waverly was built in 1831. Originally, it was a church. It became a movie theater in 1937, and earned its status as one of the city’s great movie houses showing foreign films and retrospectives. Larry Alaimo grew up around the corner from the old Waverly Theater in the 1950s. He was an usher there for 20 years, and starting tonight, he’s going back to work at the IFC Center.

ALAIMO: You had movies that really were for the neighborhood, which was an Italian-American neighborhood. So you had your DeSica, your Fellini, you had some French stuff, you had some English stuff, your J. Arthur Rank, the old Alec Guinness movies.

REPORTER: Later it became the theater that spawned the phenomenon of the Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings.

But by the time the Waverly closed, it was showing pretty basic Hollywood fare in a sub-par 390-seat theater, with a drop ceiling and problematic sight lines.

If you’re wondering where IFC, a cable channel and film distributor whose focus is basically low-budget films, got the money for such fancy digs, the answer is Cablevision. The company that owns the Independent Film Channel also owns the Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and Clearview Cinemas, which has owned the Waverly since 1998.

Jonathan Seiring is president of IFC Entertainment.

SEIRING: It is the brick and mortar home of IFC. We’re a national brand. We’ve got a national cable network; we have a theatrical distribution arm; we have a theatrical film production arm.

REPORTER: IFC distributed the indy hits My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Y Tu Maman Tambien. The theater is opening with the IFC-produced film, Me and You and Everyone We Know.

The artist and first-time feature filmmaker, Miranda July wrote, directed and starred in the film, which won awards at this year’s Cannes and Sundance film festivals.

In today’s competitive market, if a film opens on Friday and doesn’t do well at the box office, it might be gone by Monday. IFC head Jonathan Siering says ideally, the new theater will help his company rise above that.

SEIRING: One of our hopes with this theater is we will be able to hold films just a little longer to see if we can build an audience for a certain film.

IAN MOHR: Companies that have the greatest advantage in the indy film world are ones that have all these different arms, that are corporately owned.

REPORTER: Those arms form a financial safety net, says Ian Mohr, who covers independent film in New York for Daily Variety.

MOHR: Even if the theater isn’t hugely profitable or successful, if it sells more DVDs of the Miranda July movie it’s opening with, or gets more viewers to watch it on IFC Demand, that’s gonna end up paying for any loss on the theater.

REPORTER: Without question, the purpose of new film center is to extend the IFC brand. It is also seriously focused on promoting film. Feature films will be preceded by film shorts, not ads. There are two edit suites for filmmakers. And IFC chose as the theater’s general manager John Vanco—who used to run Cowboy Pictures and the Screening Room, the now-defunct downtown art house.

VANCO: I’ve been in love with New York theaters ever since I’ve been here. I saw something like 1,100 movies my first three years in New York. This is a great town for art house theaters and there’s a lot from the Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza, in particular, that we’re going to try to emulate in terms of our relationship with the audiences.

REPORTER: Unlike those theaters—and the old Waverly— the new center is not using union projectionists, so members of Local 306 say they’ll be out front picketing tonight. IFC has declined to comment.

It’s impossible to talk about the city’s independent film venues, without mentioning the Angelika Film Center on West Houston at Mercer Street. It opened in 1989, transforming both the neighborhood and the downtown film scene.

Larry Alaimo, the Waverly usher, hopes the IFC Center will do the same thing for this section of the Village.

ALAIMO: How many tattoo parlors do you need? Or sex fantasy shops do you need? It’s a little rough. At night they’re hang outs. And that’s pulling the neighborhood down. And if this theater opens up and is successful, it’ll boost things up.

REPORTER: Directly across from the new theater, the street scene has captivated audiences for decades. Rodney Houston has been coming to the West 4th Street basketball court for 20 years—and coaching here for 15.

HOUSTON: I think if you come out here, you should have something else to do other than just sitting around watching basketball and playing. You say, why don’t we just go and see an independent movie, see what it’s like, you know what I mean? Either you don’t like it, or you love it. One or the other.

HOUSTON: With this movie theater right here, I think more people will come out here, support this side of the Village.

REPORTER: Usher Larry Alaimo says he’s pretty sure “99-point-99 percent” of people will still call the IFC Center “the Waverly.” As a nod to the theater’s history, IFC is calling its gourmet café “the Waverly,” displaying the old neon sign inside, and starting a series called “Waverly Midnights.”

So, IFC gets to bolster its brand and Greenwich Village gets its theater back.

For WNYC, I’m Alicia Zuckerman