Documentary Institution DCTV Opens New York City’s Newest Theater, Firehouse Cinema

Image Courtesy DCTV

In existence since 1972, the Downtown Community Television Center—or DCTV—has been providing resources, education, and community support to documentary filmmakers in New York City for 50 years. In 2022 comes a new chapter for the group: their headquarters, located in an old firehouse at the nexus of Chinatown, City Hall, and Tribeca–has been reinvented as a cinema/educational and event space, called Firehouse Cinema. In this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, DCTV co-founder Jon Alpert, Director of Programming + Engagement Dara Messinger, and Managing Director Sade Fabelita discuss the challenges and opportunities of integrating a permanent exhibition element into their overall community mission.

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How does a group like DCTV, that’s been active for 50 years, come to open their own physical screening space?

Jon Alpert, Co-Founder: From conception to completion was exactly twenty years. The idea [came up] as part of the arts community trying to revitalize the neighborhood after 9/11. Doing construction in New York City is hand-to-hand combat. It isn’t easy. But I’ll let the theater speak for itself… I think we produce something that’s really important to the documentary community and to our local community.

[Part of the now-theater] was the stable for the firehouse in the old days. The horses lived where the theater is now. When the alarm bell rang, they were trained to walk themselves into the garage space, and the harness would come down from the ceiling and they would go off and put out the fire. The big, giant planks of wood were all repurposed. We recycled much of the original stables into, basically, the lobby. We’ve got a fire truck donated by the Baptist Valley Fire Department in rural Virginia. They heard that there were these eccentric filmmakers who were looking for an American LeFrance cab, because that’s the type of fire truck that was housed here at the fire department. They said, “If you can get it up to New York, it’s yours.” The other design element is these big slabs of wood that are lit with LED lights from behind, so it sort of looks like the Aurora Borealis in a forest as the movie’s getting ready to be played. Those were all chopped down and prepared by Hart Perry, who is a very well-respected documentary filmmaker. So it’s got documentary wood, firehouse wood. It was a lot of fun.

Dara Messinger, Director of Programming + Engagement: When people talk about a pandemic projects; some people knitted sweaters or learned how to make pies. All of the decor, to me, was John’s pandemic project. He is credited for the vision of that space. It’s not even just the fire truck cab, but it’s the fire truck cab being where we’re going to have local beer, for concessions.

Jon Alpert: We have some more ideas. The reality is a single-screen theater has a tough time surviving anywhere, but especially in New York. If we’re going to really have this thrive and support the community the way we want to, at some point we’ll have to figure out how to build a second screen. We’ve got the design elements, we just need to start vacuuming money out of the theater seats in order to be able to fund it! 

[Some of the reason behind the theater being the way it is,] with the technical infrastructure, the quality of the picture, the quality of sound, the fact that we want people to be like, “Whoa, this is a really nice place to be!”—is that we are filmmakers who grew up on the streets. We built this for other filmmakers like us. When we started [there] was no cable TV, there was no Internet. Independent filmmakers had no access to any type of television at all. No access to movie theaters. We bought a U.S. mail truck for $5, and somebody donated two black and white TV sets to us. And that was our theater. We parked it on the corner of Canal and Center Street. If people liked our movies, they stayed and watched. And when they didn’t, which was quite often, we had an empty sidewalk. An empty sidewalk is a very, very cruel teacher, but it’s a good teacher. We really learned a lot about exhibiting and how to interact with the public.

It’s this interactivity that we’ve tried to build into the theater with our modern technology. [We have] the best-functioning and most sophisticated interactive system anywhere in the world. We can connect to anywhere, anyplace, see anybody on the screen. There’s no feedback, and there’s no latency. It’s like having the person in the room with you. The events that we’ve done so far, the energy level, [the] a feeling of connectivity is really, really good. 

There was a work in progress made by a filmmaker from Chinatown about the exploitation of home care aides. These are people that go to your grandmother’s house and take care of her; they work 24-hour shifts [but] they only get paid for eight hours. People were calling in from their shifts in Queens and interacting with the audience. It was a very exciting live event. We also had an event that connected our cinema up with Korea, and we had live Korean sign language translations. It really enhances the value of the films and promotes a discussion of them. Dara and I just got off the phone with people who want to have a documentary festival of Romanian films and connect a New York audience with an audience in Romania. It’s thrilling to be able to do this, because we started DCTV to bring people together, to make them more powerful. This cinema is a really, really important part of that. 

You’re in such a vibrant, diverse part of the city that’s changed so much over the last 20 years. You only have the one screen, you have limited resources–I’m sure you want to work with a lot more people than you can logistically handle. Dara, from a programming perspective, how do you winnow it down?

Dara Messinger: I ask myself that every morning. We’ve only been open a month. What’s unique about this situation is that, we have this new [theater]. At the same time, documentary, production, education, and exhibition has always been a part of DCTV. It’s always evolving. And so now we have this latest bright, shiny object [in] this incredible cinema. People know us, and hopefully therefore respect us, and that is built in and gets finer with age. We have so many communities that we’re serving. Our location, zip code 10013, is at the nexus of Chinatown, Tribeca, [and] City Hall. That is our community. And [we have] our other communities: documentary filmmakers from around the country, from around the world, but specifically New York City. We have always been a place where there’s different entry points. “Oh, I know someone who was part of your youth media program,” or “I took a filmmaking class,” or “I saw a screening back in the day.” 

We are a center by and for documentary filmmakers. But [the cinema] also allows us to connect to general audiences. People that might not know anything about documentary filmmaking. “Oh, you’re screening a film about beluga whales. I always wanted to know about beluga whales.” The community is constantly evolving. Documentary can be so many different things to so many people. It could be journalism, it could be art. And it is speaking truth to power. There is more documentary out there than I think a lot of people know about. It is shuffling a lot of things. 

I get to continue the work that I was already doing with so many of [local] groups and organizations, but now they have nice comfy seats and the best technology imaginable. That makes their work that much more valuable. We’re taking something that maybe some people don’t take seriously, [and] we’re taking it seriously by putting it on a pedestal. That’s how I see the type of kind of collaboration and code navigation of how to use this space. We’re also serving as an extension of the programs we are already doing. Working with the youth media program–do you guys want to start also learning about curation? How do we get filmmakers in here taking our workshops, doing continuing education to learn about finishing their films and having color services and things like that? It’s constantly looking inward and outward at the same time.

When it comes to programming–not just films, but events, classes, anything else you may do–art houses want to be as inclusive as possible, but that’s easier said than done. You still have to pick content that will connect with audiences. You still need to keep the lights on. And you don’t want to solely keep working with the same people over and over again, because then you’d be missing out on new voices and new perspectives. As the Managing Director, Sade, you have a macro view: How do you approach inclusive curation in a way that’s manageable for a small group?

Sade Falebita, Managing Director: One of the things that we have talked about is, as we’re starting off with this new endeavor, there’s going to be a period of trial and error. There’s going to be a period of experimenting and understanding what the right mix is so that we have sustainability. We’re also making sure that we’re focusing on our community [and] we’re able to make revenue—we’re able to have all of these things coexist… We’re going to be reflecting inward and outward [and] assessing, like, how does this mix [of private events, community screenings, etc.] work? We’re looking at those things and making those evaluations so that we can come up with the right mix to be sustainable. So it’s definitely an experimental phase for us. So far, I think we’re doing a really great job. There have been so many people that have been on the DCTV journey in so many different ways that are still with us. They may have come to workshops, and now they’re joining us for the screenings. They may have participated in the youth media program or been on our production team in the past. We have a lot of people that have been on the journey with us and a lot of community partners who now are coming and saying, “Hey, can we do this?” And we’re fulfilling those needs. 

The great thing is that we have time. If we can’t do something now, we can always do it in the future. It’s not just about us, DCTV. It’s about these people that we work with, these other nonprofits, these independent filmmakers. It’s about them, and we can showcase their work. With all these new requests that are being fielded, there’s nothing but time. We plan to be here for a while. It’s something that we’re going to continuously assess. I don’t think it’s going to be perfect, but we’re definitely keeping our eyes and ears open. When we started this, we had very specific goals, and a big part of that was community building and being able to provide the space and resources for the people that we serve. And as Dara said, that community is expanding and expanding. We’re trying to also keep understanding what the needs are so that we can be the ones providing those resources. 

Jon Alpert: DCTV has a culture that is–I hope in a constructive way–relentlessly self critical. It goes back to the early days of the mail truck on the sidewalk. “What a great film this is, we were the only people to get into the sweatshop–!” And nobody stays to watch the film. They all go to the subway. We’ve always tried to assess the work that we’re doing, whether it’s with our classes, whether it’s for the documentaries that we make, and always try to make them better and better. 

 I want to be in a place where I feel like I’m being celebrated as somebody who is interested in documentaries. Nobody cut corners on the equipment. This is the best sound, the best picture. It’s like our Field of Dreams. We built it, and is anybody going to come? It’s dedication and emotion and—it’s in our name. Community. We are a community center, and that’s the spirit of our theater.

You’ve been open for about a month now. From a programming perspective, how do you propose to tackle things for the first year or so?

Dara Messinger:  Right now, I feel a little bit like a wedding DJ. We have to take a lot of requests. We’re listening to the community, from members that have been with us forever to people that just walked in and said, “What’s going on here?”

It’s also awards season in the industry. Because we’re in New York City, [distributors are] like, “We have to get our film to a New York City audience.” We’re feeling a lot of that. We’re a single screen, and we are trying to put as much as we can [out] there. In all of my time at DCTV, there’s never a moment where it’s like, “We’re out of ideas.” Never. What a great problem to have. There are so many ideas, and I’m so grateful that I have a managing director who says we have time. [We need to] pace ourselves. I’m just hoping that more and more, as a single screen, we can build, we can have intentionality of all these things that we want to do. And we also are going to make space to be reactive. Things happen in the world. We are a community center. We have to be aware of what’s happening in our community and make space for conversations. We are not out of this pandemic, as much as we hope we are. It is pretty amazing to be able to get together physically in [a] space. We opened our doors after being closed and virtual for so long. It kind of feels like a rebirth. 

Sade Falebita: I view moving forward, as Dara said, as a rebirth and a really big transitional moment for the organization. I’m really excited about enhancing our education and exhibition capacity. There’s a lot of potential. I feel like we’re a diamond in the rough. And I think now is the time for us to continue building that foundation for growth and education and exhibition. The world has changed a lot. What we’re doing right now is keeping the pulse on what our community needs. I speak to youth media students all the time, and I’m hearing about what they’re interested in learning, what they want to do. There’s a lot of potential to really develop both of those areas. With exhibition, we have this beautiful space. We want to do the same thing with our educational side as well. We want to be able to build those resources, be able to have a diverse set of curriculum where people are learning different types of skills that are relevant to the time.

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