Lincoln Center landmark: Bunin Munroe Center signals new era for Film Society

On June 17, 2011, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, the esteemed nonprofit film organization, introduced the latest addition in the ongoing rebirth of the legendary Manhattan cultural hub that is home to the 42-year-old Society. Located in the heart of the Lincoln Center campus and outfitted with two screens, an amphitheatre, a café and the latest in audio and visual technologies, the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center is a milestone venue for all things cinematic.

With construction cost closing in on $41 million since ground was broken in 2007—as the Capital Campaign enters its public phase with a seat-naming opportunity, 90% of the budget has been raised with support from the Film Society’s board of directors, Lincoln Center and other private supporters—it is reassuring to know that the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center is aiming for the future.

According to Rose Kuo, executive director of The Film Society, the goal is “to utilize the Film Center as a springboard into the future as we expand across multiple platforms—a process that has already begun with a total re-launch of our website—so that audiences can be a part of our community and connect with The Film Society at any time, from anywhere around the globe.”

Film Journal International is pleased to present to our readers a detailed look at what has already been called a “gorgeous state-of-the-art facility” and “latest date-night destination for New York's cineastes” in the New York Post and W magazine. In addition to reviewing design and technology with exclusive insight provided by star architect and designer David Rockwell of Kodak Theatre (Hollywood) and Jet Blue Terminal (JFK Airport, New York) fame, the accompanying feature by Doris Toumarkine highlights The Film Society’s plans for programming their Center.

“Ever since I came to New York, I have been attracted to that part of the city,” David Rockwell says of his involvement as designer of the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. “I always felt like Lincoln Center has incredible energy. I also closely followed the renovation of the entire campus by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The opening up of that place has just been phenomenal. This was a great opportunity to be a part of the rebirth of this amazing collection of buildings. [In the past,] Lincoln Center was more interesting as a series of buildings than how they related to one another.”

The $1.2 billion refurbishment project for the 16-acre Lincoln Center began in 2006 and will continue well into the next couple of years. Rockwell’s role as architect of the Film Center piece of the whole was motivated by more than his professional interest. “I’m a film buff,” he declares. “I felt that The Film Society was mostly viewed as the New York Film Festival alone. In some ways, however, they do the most programming of any of the Lincoln Center constituents.”

With the new Film Center, “we had a chance to create in many ways one of the most public places of the Lincoln Center buildings by creating an actual home for The Film Society that could program 365 days a year and be a place where you would want to spend time talking about films, grabbing a snack, meeting directors… It would become a special place, a kind of hub or mixing chamber for people who are interested in film.”

With the existing 268-seat Walter Reade Theater located across the street towards the fringes of the campus—and due for an update in the near future—the search was on for a more defining space. “What intrigued me about this one was that it was right off Broadway on 65th Street,” Rockwell says about the available options. Carved out from parking and underutilized office areas, “the challenging part was that the space sat directly over the central mechanical plant for all of Lincoln Center. In order to get enough headroom to have great sightlines—and it was a prerequisite and The Film Society’s clear mandate that they become, visually and acoustically, the best screening rooms in New York—we had to excavate in deep enough to get beyond the plant. That way we could isolate the sound in the movie theatres and not have that din of the mechanical noises interfere with the sound quality inside the auditoriums.”

In the right hands, great challenges can bring creative solutions. “Pushing the theatres further into the space led us to the creation of the amphitheatre just beyond the lobby, which is actually one of the most interesting aspects of the Film Center. The space is so flexible. During the day, it is an extension of the lobby as well as a viable performance space at other times. It seats about 87 people and has a 152-inch [3.86 m] plasma screen, which is the largest on public view in this country. So, you can come off 65th Street, grab a bite at the café and sit down. During the day, The Film Society can program shorts, commercials, interviews—all kinds of things, no tickets needed.”

For the lobby and hallways leading to the amphitheatre and screening rooms, the team at Rockwell Group played up the industrial look and feel by keeping the concrete ceiling, utility wiring and duct work visible, all the while opting for a highly polished concrete floor. “We wanted to emphasize that it is part of Lincoln Center, but in some ways it is also slightly less formal,” Rockwell explains. “The amphitheatre is wrapped in maple wood. Maple stripped flooring becomes the benches and wraps up around the flat-screen monitor and across the ceiling.”

In another nod to the past life of the space, a 16-foot-wide garage door was installed. “When the Film Society needs it to be closed, the amphitheatre becomes the third screening room. Because of where it is located, you can load the two main screening rooms from the entrances on either side and have the public exit through the amphitheatre.”

Rockwell envisions that operational scenario “for an interview with the director after the movie. Or you can have a reception in the amphitheatre first, before going into the screening room. This layout gives a lot of flexibility in terms of how it is all programmed.”

More screens mean more options too, even though theFilm Center’s opening attraction was booked multiplex-style, on both of its screens, the Francesca Beale and Howard Gilman Theaters. “The two theatres are treated similarly as kind of a pair,” Rockwell says, noting their compact design of 144 and 87 seats each.

To negate the impact of the mechanical plant humming nearby, the sidewalls needed to be acoustically absorptive. “Usually that is accomplished with fabric panels,” Rockwell explains, drawing a comparison to other movie theatres. “We developed a material that is made of perforated metal with acoustically absorptive wall panels inside that perforation. The metal has been pleated so it looks like a flowing curtain. Each two-foot wide panel is highlighted by its own mini-spotlight so that it has a little bit of sparkle.”

In addition to wide aisles and full stadium seating with unobstructed sightlines, “we also wanted everything about the room to disappear once the movie begins. Ultimately, we want the full focus to be the film itself.” To further that goal and to bring in a curtain riser ceremony without an actual curtain in place, Rockwell placed pilasters of blackened wood and resin that light up on either side of the projection screens. “One of the things we wanted to do was to create the notion of ritual before the movie begins. Just like the chandeliers at the Met lift up, the light fixtures on either side of the screen dim from the bottom up. After those go out, the light on the wall dims and the pleaded metal covering goes away. You begin floating in a kind of a beautiful, dark grey space where the only thing you really see is the screen.”

Also contributing to that ambiance is the custom seating, which was manufactured by Series Seating from Columbia and personally tested on-site at the factory in Bogota by a full crew from The Film Society and including Rockwell Group project leader Michael Fischer. “The chairs had to do a lot of things,” Rockwell declares. “They had to be comfortable, of course, but also invisible in terms of seeing the seat in front of you. They needed to have enough give to feel like you were in a special place. But we didn’t want the seats to lean all the way back as they do in an amphitheatre or a planetarium. We just didn‘t want anyone to fall asleep. They are great seats, everything about them.”

Rockwell is clearly proud of the new Film Center. “It is one of those projects where the client really encouraged us to get every detail right. It has been a phenomenal experience.” But what is his favorite aspect? “I love the box office sort of ‘leaning out’ over 65th Street with a reader-board ‘marquee’ above, because I think it welcomes you. And then there is our carpet of some 160 LED lights set into the floor. Nonetheless, my favorite feature is the amphitheatre because I think it is a great room that will be used in so many different ways. I believe that the amphitheatre…will be one of the ultimate New York City gathering spaces where people just want to be with each other and be with films.”

For more on how this experience compares to David Rockwell’s commercial cinema and theatrical work, such as Star Southfield, E-Walk and the Kodak Theatre, and his set designs for the Oscar ceremony and Broadway shows, make sure to check out our upcoming Design & Construction issue.

Only the Best for Bunin
Here are some of the top names and manufacturers whose products and services contribute to the state-of-the-art high-tech options for 16mm, 35mm, digital cinema and broadcast video at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center in New York City.

Goldberg 16mm and 35mm reels; Kelmar rewind table, Kinoton FP-38E “Premier” 35/16mm and variable speed conversion kit; Neumade splicers and tape, storage cabinets for reels and lenses; Schneider Cinelux Ultra and Premier film lenses, Super Cinelux

Barco DP2K-23B with 4,000W 1.95 - 3.2;1 motorized lens, Barco ASC-2048 Digital Cinema Scaler; Christie LX-700 4-chip LCD, 1024 x 786, 7,000 lumens; Crestron automation components; Dolby Digital 3D system; Dolby DSS200 digital cinema server

Blu-ray and/or DVD players from Denon, Panasonic, Pioneer, Sharp and Toshiba; Samsung multi-format VCR; Sony J-Series Compact Betacam player; Panasonic video camera

Dolby CP650 cinema sound processor, DMA8Plus film audio processor and digital media adapter; EAW compact fill loudspeaker; JBL subwoofer, surround and tri-amplified cinema speakers; QSC DCA amplifiers and DCM-30D digital cinema monitor; Crown audio microphone ceiling; Sennheiser wireless microphone system;

Custom perforated/pleated metal wall panels: Gage Metals, Sparta, WI
Amphitheatre garage door operating system: Belu Tec, Lingen, Germany
Custom maple wall/ceiling panels–amphitheatre: DKDI, Toronto, Ontario
Acoustone speaker cloth for acoustical surfaces, Chaska, MN
Custom leather amphitheatre seats: DKDI, Toronto, Ontario
Custom backlit pilasters–theatres: DKDI, Toronto, Ontario

Architect: Rockwell Group New York, NY
Core and Shell Architect: Diller Scofidio + Renfro / FXFOWLE, New York, NY
Construction Manager: Yorke Construction Corp., New York, NY
(This is a partial list.)