The Pelham Picture House (on the New York State Register of Historic Places) previously operated as a movie theater (starting in 1921). Eighty years later, in 2001, plans were in motion to demolish the building to make way for a retail bank. Putting community spirit into action, Pelham citizens set forth to create the nonprofit organization, Pelham Picture House Preservation, to preserve the theater. Eventually, the organization purchased the theater.
Since then the mission of the newly named The Picture House Regional Film Center (a.k.a. The Picture House) – has been to serve as a regional center showcasing independent cinema as well as serving the community with learning programs focused on the world of cinema.
Last year, The Picture House celebrated its 90th birthday with a renovated and restored theater.
I recently had the honor to sit down and talk about the Picture House’s past present and future with the Director of Programming, Ilya Tovbis; here are a few highlights of our conversation from February of this year.
An art house film-lover’s alternative to NYC
One thing that immediately came to mind when I was preparing for the interview was to ask Ilya the following question:
Does The Picture House’s proximity to Manhattan help or hinder the center’s goals?
I guess I should not have been surprised to learn that in fact it helps, particularly as it is a great alternative for those (like myself) who reside in Westchester County. The number of independent art house cinemas in the area is sparse to say the very least and while my closeness to the city does not make it a hardship to go to NYC’s numerous art house theaters, for many of my neighbors that live in the central and northern sections of Westchester, this presents more of a challenge. By having an art-house film center ‘in their backyard,’ they have the opportunity chance to see a film they may have otherwise had to wait for its home video release.
The Picture House really does have the best of both worlds. While it provides the above-mentioned service to film lovers who live outside of the city, the relative closeness to the city allows them to get some book film personalities with this unique selling point: in less than 30 minute journey from central Manhattan, they can discuss their projects with a new audience and increase their reach. As one example, last year, I had the pleasure visiting The Picture House to see the feature Hanna, followed by a Q&A session with the film’s director, Joe Wright.
Striking the right balance
When asked about the ‘product mix’ of the film center, Mr. Tovbis stated that The Picture House’s main focus is on exhibiting independent, art house and international films. By featuring these films, he sees what The Picture House as a great alternative to the multiplex.
Here are just a few examples of some of what The Picture House’s has to offer (some descriptions taken directly from the website):
- Classic Essentials: a showcase of repertory/classic cinema; examples include Annie Hall and Double Indemnity, which will be shown this month.
- Education Programs: Creatively-driven film education and appreciation programs for children and adults alike
- TopDocs: A series of leading documentaries from around the world, hot off the festival circuit, and often played as previews prior to their theatrical release.
- An Evening With …: Featuring renowned film artists in conversation with established film critics.
- Music & Film: A showcase of films about music, frequently followed by a live performance component. (very popular program)
- … and other special events
In terms of the sequencing and scheduling of these special events, Tovbis’ goal is to have about 6-8 per month.
Spreading one’s wings
This programming will obviously require more than just the muscle of The Picture House. One thing that Tovbis mentioned during our conversation is that in broadening the scope of The Picture House’s offerings, the prospect of cross-collaboration becomes more relevant and vital. A lot of independent cinemas often work with film institutes as a means for distributing films that may otherwise be a challenge to acquire on one’s own. This is a great boost for both organizations and aids in increasing the profile of films that often get overlooked in the mainstream.
There are challenges, of course
As an art house/independent theater and film center, there are a host of challenges. This is especially true in an economic climate that, while slowly recovering, still has a long way to go. As a result, funding will always be somewhat of an issue. In addition to foundational support, the bulk of funds used to keep The Picture House going are collected through sustainable patronage, namely through regular visitors purchasing a Picture House membership. As with all non-profits, there are a host of benefits to be had depending on one’s level of patronage.
Spreading news about what the film center does by word of mouth is also key to making sure that it remains a viable resource in the greater New York City area. On a personal note, I was born and raised one town over from The Picture House and only became aware of all the great stuff that was on offer within the past few years. So spreading the word within the community is something that Tovbis is acutely aware of and hopes to accomplish along with his other duties.
In the end, Tovbis sees The Picture House as a great service to the community; in his words, film is a populist medium, one of the most accessible forms of art.