Quadrophilia: Greenwich Village’s original four-plex returns with stylish makeover

Cinemas Features

New York’s historic Greenwich Village is world-renowned for its old landmarks, but in the cinema space, the “grande dame” of art-house cinemas—the four-screen Quad Cinema—made her debut in 1972. Having grown a little shabby-chic, she ended her reign a few years ago—but like the best of cinema classics, she has been thoroughly, glamorously restored and reopened. And in keeping with the theme that permeates so much of its design and programming, let’s also say the new Quad has landed on “all fours.”

Like many a storied lady, the venue—dubbed New York’s first multiplex and known as one of the country’s earliest multiple-screen venues—changed partners in 2014, passing from the hands of longtime founder/owner Elliott Kanbar into those of real estate mogul/developer/producer/distributor Charles S. Cohen, the “billionaire film buff” as a recent Crain’s New York headline had it.

A longtime cinephile with special interests in theatre design and art-house fare, especially French cinema, new Quad owner Cohen, officially the theatre’s chairman and CEO, is also owner, president and CEO of major city real estate firm Cohen Brothers Realty Corporation and the owner and chairman/CEO of Cohen Media Group (CMG), which he formed in 2008 to produce and distribute independent and art-house films throughout North America. To date, CMG has distributed over 60 films, most notably this year’s Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film winner The Salesman and several previous imports that received multiple Oscar nominations.

CMG, which houses Cohen’s vast library of classic and foreign titles, is currently America’s largest distributor of French films in the United States, while its specialty home-entertainment label, the Cohen Film Collection, releases restored and remastered editions of classic Hollywood and foreign films on digital platforms, Blu-ray and DVD. Cohen also has fingers in other popcorn buckets: In 2013, he launched his growing producing career very auspiciously with the critically acclaimed indie Frozen River, which landed two top Oscar nominations.

Cohen’s new Quad, a collaboration of both CMG and Cohen Bros. Realty Corp., had her coming-out party on April 14 and opened to the public two days later. Cohen kept the building shell on West 13th Street but gutted and extensively redesigned the space, even adding a wine bar adjoining the lobby.

As his latest business venture, Cohen describes the Quad as an exhibition venue under the umbrella of his Cohen Media Group and the first of his theatres to open as a public cinema. In the private sector, he previously oversaw theatre development and design with the renovation of New York’s AMPAS Academy Theatre at Lighthouse International on 59th Street and the building of the SilverScreen Theater inside the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, CA.

The Quad reborn might be described by design writers as sleek, elegant, contemporary and even modern, considering its Art Deco touches that respect symmetry and angles. The four auditoriums, designated as the Q, U, A or D, first impress with the plush seating, smooth walls, creative lighting and stunning colors that comprise a set of four, each assigned to different rooms. “Q” features black and has 100 seats; “U,” a striking red, is the Repertory Room and largest with 116 seats; “A,” the color blue, has 114 seats; and “D,” with 97 seats, has a soothing grey scheme.

The theatre’s seats were designed by cinema and auditorium specialists Skeie in Norway. Lighting designer Joe Kaplan worked closely with the theatre’s lead design firm Pentagram (see below) to come up with the overall lighting concept.

The new Quad is equipped for 4K digital with Christie and Barco systems, two from each manufacturer, and also has 3D capability. Cohen is also a believer in showing classic films on their original elements as they were meant to be seen and as often as possible. So the Quad also stands ready with 35mm and even 16mm equipment. And  7.1 Dolby powers audio on all four screens.

A stunning lobby, featuring a huge video wall of 32 individual monitors and a display of oversized Italian film posters from Cohen’s private collection, introduces filmgoers to the new Quad experience. The video wall showcases a rotating selection of content, including trailers, new video art, clips from CMG and the Cohen Film Collection of library titles. It can project multiple individual images or one large image at a square (1:1) ratio. The video wall was designed and implemented by AV Interiors under the direction of Eric Eidelman, who worked with Pentagram.

Credit graphic-design star Paula Scher and Pentagram, where she is a partner, for most of the Quad’s new look and theme. Even beyond the four auditoriums, the number four reigns and is being leveraged to the max for effective branding. Scher came up with the Quad’s 4-inclined modern design—from its visually strong logo with original font of the squared Q, U, A, D letters to its four auditoriums, lobby and beyond. She also designed the theatre’s awning, the signs inside the theatre including the modular digital display on the back wall, the lobby ceiling’s bespoke light fixtures and the color systems throughout, as well as big LEDs (Q-U-A-D) inside the theatres.

Cohen guesses that the cost for this total design and renovation re-do is “at least several million,” but maybe in keeping with the theme we should multiply that by four?

Launching his new venue, Cohen also reached back to old, knowing and trusted by rehiring as theatre managers two women who began working at the Quad in the early ’80s. And the lobby’s concession stand also harkens back to old and tried-and-true, going a little down-market with the usual popcorn and other familiar fare. Fussier film folk will find relief in the adjoining wine bar for the pizzazz in keeping with the Quad’s design.

Quad tickets are currently set at $15 (Hey, what happened to that magic four?) with seniors charged $12. Asked about any further discounts or loyalty/VIP programs (maybe student discounts or even wine bar discounts for ticket holders, etc.), Cohen responds, “Right now, my number-one priority has been to just get going. But we are building a punch list.”

He rightfully describes the new Quad look as “intimate and luxurious” but places most importance on the theatre’s programming. With this priority, he has pulled together a well-regarded programming team. The trio at the heart include new hires Gavin Smith, senior programmer, who was editor of Film Comment magazine for 15 years and programmed at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for 20 years. His focus is on the repertory programming and he collaborates with other new hire C. (Chris) Mason Wells, whose background includes programming chores at New York’s IFC Center. Wells, as the Quad’s director of repertory programming, also spearheads the first-run bookings. Smith is editor of the theatre’s monthly calendar.

Also key to programming input is CMG veteran and senior VP of theatrical sales and exhibition Bill Thompson, who consults with Wells on the first-run bookings. The first-run/rep oversight may seem a little blurred, but Cohen describes his whole programming effort for now as “a committee approach.”

Cohen says his mission, even calling it “an important part” of his strategic programming plan, is to present “a highly curated repertory program.” This also reflects his vision for classic film restoration, which, while he respects celluloid, is eager “to show these classics in a way that is even better than when they were originally seen or presented.”

Regarding their interaction with distributors, Wells says that negotiations can begin either with the Quad or the distributor, as “it always comes back to the movies themselves, those that we believe are a good fit for the Quad even if we discover one that doesn’t have a distributor. In that case, we’ll approach a distributor saying we’d like to show the title [which might result in a sale]. We all work together and find the films we all want to show.” A few of the first-run titles (A Quiet Passion, Heal the Living, Slack Bay, to name a few) in the Quad’s inaugural lineup suggest the new specialized films to come.

On the rep end, Smith and Wells (the name suggests a high-end U.K. shirt retailer) have devised special and ongoing series, such as a Lina Wertmüller retrospective; “First Encounters,” which pairs a well-known film personality experiencing an important picture he or she has never seen for the first time; “Quadrophilia,” a continuing series of well-known films that the old Quad played; and “Four Play,” which, pounding away at the theatre’s “four” theme, offers films that have “four” or four designations in their title (Quadrophenia, Rocky IV and Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet, to name a few). Another Quad program, “Two for Tuesday,” tempts with two-fers. (Both The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File were paired as a recent Tuesday come-on and patrons came.)

The Quad also fashions programs and retrospectives like one that is immigration-themed (The Godfather Part II, America, America and the like) or homages to film composers like Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor).

Certainly, First Encounters, with its inclusion of a celebrity encounter into the film mix, has “legs.” Says Smith, “We’ll be doing more of these and the more the merrier, as our evening with [actor/director] John Turturro and Pather Panchali was such a success and John, who has such a love of the classics, is such a film guy.”

Unspooling in May are the doc biopic Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait and a retrospective of Goldie Hawn films (a nice complement to her comeback in the upcoming Amy Schumer-starrer Snatched). Coming in June will be French director Bertrand Tavernier’s personal doc My Journey Through French Cinema. (Schedules and more information can be found at quadcinema.com.)

The Schnabel and Tavernier docs are among the new CMG releases that are hitting Quad screens. Comments Smith, “So far, we’ve only had a handful from CMG but hope to find space for many more and make the Quad a sensible showcase for them.”

For now, say the programmers, the Quad has no plans to go beyond its core rep and specialized fare to mainstream first-runs or “moveovers.” Adds Wells, “Especially with windows collapsing, that’s not so desirable now, but you never can tell.” But the programmers and Cohen emphasize that the Quad is just now getting started and there is much to learn and tweak.

Also smoothing the way is the Quad’s neighborhood, home to prestigious schools like NYU, The New School, Parsons and nearby School of Visual Arts, and known for its concentration of students, liberals, the well-off, the arty and gay. But as creeping (to be kind) gentrification and familiar restlessness have sent some gays north to Chelsea or cool Brooklyn, the neighborhood has increasingly been attracting as residents celebrities and the well-off middle class and elderly who can afford it. Observes Cohen, “Yes, we’re in a really good place, and also because this neighborhood has fond memories of the Quad and its tradition of art and independent films.”

While both Cohen and his programmers have a clear view of the Village locals, they see their reach as much wider. Says Smith, “We’re eager to attract audiences from uptown, the boroughs, all the movie lovers and certainly the younger generation and have them see films in the very best of circumstances. We want the film purists.” (In the interest of furthering the Quad theme, too bad four-quadrant audiences appear left out.)

In its downtown area below 14th Street, the Quad has nearby theatres like the Angelika, IFC Center, Sunshine Cinema and Metrograph and further uptown are the Lincoln Center-area art-house screens. Were New York to have the mass transportation it deserves, even venues in Brooklyn like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and Nitehawk Cinema would loom as rivals.

But there does loom for the Quad the hushed practice of “exclusivity” that has specialized distributors traditionally limiting their new releases to only one downtown theatre below 14th Street. Cohen notes that although the revived Quad is new, what is key to gaining traction is “our need to prove ourselves to distributors and at the same time gain acceptance as a repertory mecca, the place for serious filmgoing so those audiences will be drawn to the Quad. Our wine bar will further distinguish us.”

On the other side of the box-office coin, distributors have their own challenge in New York, where on occasion as many as 25 films, most of them indies, can open on a Friday. And no one in the film game these days—whether focused on big or large screens—can ignore the growing lure of home entertainment, that elephant in the room that grows fatter every day. (Blame the high calorie count of digitally overfed small screens.)

Cohen knows both environments. In addition to the new Quad, he’s eyeing new public venues in multiple locations and is already well into development on a new Carefree Theatre complex in West Palm Beach, Florida. (February’s Palm Beach Post described it as a six-theatre art house with luxury apartments, restaurants, shops and underground parking; the usual suspects in these matters cried “too big,” but the city, as the article suggests, is willing to give “bigger” a try.)

Cohen says that the Carefree, once a landmark from the 1930s that had to be demolished after it had been left abandoned for years, will be rebuilt into a multiplex like the Quad but within a large complex that will have a live venue and more.”

Cohen is also savvy about the home front. Back in the 1990s, he had already built at his Connecticut residence a “standalone,” state-of-the-art home theatre that has assuredly been getting more “stately” over the years. Yet, he emphasizes his strong preference, even his passion, for the big-screen theatre as “distinguished for providing a community experience and very different from watching at home.” Filmmakers want that theatrical environment, he says, “so we’re giving them the very best environment possible where they’ll be assured of a high level of quality that a community of viewers will get. There will always be a need for theatrical venues and our location even strengthens that appeal.”

There’s no disputing that many fans want to watch great films in Quad-like venues, but also interesting to watch will be the roles that the Quad’s distributor/suppliers and home entertainment will play as this new kid on the exhibition block—a grande dame made much grander—spreads her wings.