Metrograph: Where People Go To Keep Theaters Alive
Cinephiles rejoice in a movie theater so good you might think it's a restaurant.
By James Nalle
Photos by Jeremy Liebman
Local Ticket is a monthly column that reviews a different New York City movie theater each month. From seating, to popcorn, to showtimes, no detail is spared.
Tucked away in one of downtown New York’s most stylish neighborhoods is an oasis for nerds. Yes, it's time to talk about all things Metrograph, a cinema where the sexy and the cinephile converge to bask in the undying allure of moviegoing. The Dimes Square adjacency of the young theater has cast its image against chic watering holes and has also helped amass quite a bit of hype since its opening in 2016. The small cinema attracts the attention of some big talent, with Wes Anderson calling it the “coolest new theater in the world” in 2019, a robust rotation of celebrities regularly participating in Q&A sessions, and Ari Aster being a reported regular at the in-house restaurant upstairs.
When you first approach the cinema, you’ll wonder if you’re in the right place until the exact moment you enter the doors. The exterior is understated, with bare brick walls and no sign of a marquee or any other name plastered across the street-facing wall of the building. The first quirk of the theater is the fact that whichever door you choose to enter (there are a few at the entrance), has about a fifty-percent chance of opening. I’ve been there a couple of times just this month, and I still clumsily walk full steam into a locked door every other time I visit. If you’re going for a matinee screening, it’s a bit hard to make anything out from outside the glass doors, but when you pull up after the sun has set, the legible and quite pretty sign inside the lobby shines brilliantly through the glass.
Speaking of the lobby, it is refreshingly “different!” Metrograph was founded by a designer of men’s ties, so it’s no surprise that the interior design takes some interesting swings. The ice-cold vestibule boasts a curated concessions stand, a stripped-back box office, and a sprawling lounge area where patrons can watch a film that is projected on the wall. When I arrive, I typically walk into the concessions nook because I feel awkward going straight to the bathroom as if that were the only reason I entered the building. I am not a wandering guy who just has to “go”— I simply need to use the bathroom before and after every single movie I see in theaters. Trip number one is to make sure I don’t have to climb over people during the film, and trip number two is to process the 16.9 oz of coke that will have just entered my system. The bathroom is a delight, and with the fragrant incense diffusers and J Dilla on the speakers, you might think you’re at a restaurant. Well…funnily enough, you basically are!
A floor above Metrograph’s entrance is a classy dining destination called The Metrograph Commissary, where you can eat a meal before, after, or while having no plans to watch a film! This is where the “sexy” comes into play—there were quite a few attractive and well-dressed patrons at the restaurant when I visited. It’s a nicely put-together joint with an old Hollywood style, and it felt like a special treat to unpack a film with a friend one night after our viewing. The place has subdued lighting design ample Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, and when I went, I recognized multiple people I’d seen on Instagram (this felt embarrassing). The other component of the theater’s second floor is a fun-sized bookstore. Long story short: everything offered there is fire, and it’s very expensive.
But back to the concessions—things are arranged more like a candy store than your typical AMC battle station. A floor-to-ceiling display spreads itself brilliantly across the walls, with patterned rows of fan-favorite snacks and obscure Japanese goodies. Initially feeling a bit gimmicky to me, Metrograph is probably the only theater in the States where you could pair your popcorn with a Lychee gummy, so I have to hand it to them for individuality. I have a lot of appreciation for the fridge in that area, where instead of fountain drinks, customers can choose from a selection of bottled sodas, sparkling waters, and even chilled chocolate treats, which is a HUGELY important innovation in theater snacks! I think that $5 for a bottled Coca-Cola is a good time, and I like it when the person at the register cracks the bottle open for me. Before we move on to the showing rooms themselves, please allow me to quickly comment on the popcorn situation.
As someone who just praised innovations in concession presentation not four sentences ago, popcorn is exempt from reinvention. The popcorn at Metrograph is served in small white bags that are pre-popped in-house (god only knows when) and then individually bagged and stored in the luminous snack display. The taste is surprisingly good, as each bite delivers a sense of salty and buttery satisfaction. The problem is the pre-popped part. Listen, I can totally understand the fact that an employee in black-tie shoveling freshly popped kernels from a greasy glass case would not fit in with Metrograph’s aesthetic, but I have to dock points. When I go to the movie theaters, I want a bag of popcorn that is fresh, warm, and overflowing out of a kitschy bag. Also, the size of the bags automatically disqualifies the “reach over” that one might engage when their friend has a massive bucket of corn; the bags are all single servings—I love that part.
After you find your way through the line at concessions, you will make your way past the dapperly dressed employees of the Metrograph towards your theater. The uniform falls directly in line with the cinema’s image: it’s manicured, fancier than you’re expecting, and feels hipster in an early 2010s way. Whether the outfits work for you or not, the staff are all young, not too cool to be helpful, and I got embarrassed when I kept seeing one of them multiple times in one week.
Once you eventually settle into your theater you get the honor of joining the Metrograph’s true tribe: the movie nerds. The theater’s approach of boutique programming and 35mm projection attract only the oddest and most socially awkward of New Yorkers, and while there is certainly a contingent of fashionable moviegoers in many screenings, it is a breath of fresh air to enter the showing rooms and join the weirdos for the big show. These people will clap at the end of a movie. These people will watch the early works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. It is these people who keep these theaters alive.
Much has been said about the chairs in Metrograph, and they may be another example where more consideration is given to aesthetics than comfort, but the seating has grown on me. No, I can’t cross my legs, and yes, there is the occasional creaking sound, but I’ve come to accept the limitations of these small rooms. Elsewhere in the theater, and similar to Film Forum from last month, random chairs come back in this edition of Local Ticket, as there are ornate chairs chilling around both Metrograph's theaters. The rooms are great, with no audio leakage and a fun balcony-seating feature, and the pre-show trailers are a hoot to behold.
I like this spot. If you are looking for some ice-cold Reeses Pieces, a gathering of movie nuts, and some transcendent celluloid projection, set your sights on Metrograph.