Any Movie Ever Made Could be Playing in Lawrenceville
Single-screen Butler Street theater Row House Cinema has the luxury of screening just about any film it likes.
photo by john altdorfer
Anyone with a Netflix subscription is familiar with the problem of choice. After spending an hour scrolling through movie titles in search of the perfect flick, a realization hits: If a selection had been made in a timely fashion, the movie would be approaching its climax by now. With so many options, however, how can a movie lover pick just one?
A similar dilemma faces Brian Mendelssohn and the programming team at Row House Cinema, the single-screen movie house in Lawrenceville. Row House typically screens revivals of past hits and favorites, dating from the dawn of cinema to the 2010s.
In the face of all of those movies, how to begin?
The first step: Pick a theme. “Sometimes we have a theme we want to do, and sometimes that theme is around a specific event — like [there’s] a new James Bond release, or it’s Christmas,” says Mendelssohn, Row House’s owner.
"Spirited Away" / photo courtesy GKIDS
This month’s themes at the Butler Street theater, which opened in June 2014: a Leonardo DiCaprio retrospective from Nov. 27-Dec. 3; two films from the French New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s paired with two from the Hong Kong New Wave of the ’80s and ’90s from Dec. 4-10; a quartet from the acclaimed Japanese animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki from Dec. 11-17; and holiday favorites “A Christmas Story,” “Bad Santa,” “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Die Hard,” from Dec. 18-25.
The themes are selected on “purely artistic” merit, Mendelssohn says. When booking the films themselves, though, “we definitely think about commercial viability.” During the DiCaprio week, for example, Mendelssohn and the Row House staff — three others are ordinarily involved in selecting movies — want to show the 1993 drama “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” the actor’s breakthrough performance. Unsure of the audience demand for screenings of “Gilbert Grape,” though, Mendelssohn will fill the rest of the week with Best Picture Oscar winners “Titanic” and “The Departed” and recent hit “Inception.”
"Le Cercle Rouge" / photo courtesy rialto pictures
“It’s about balance,” Mendelssohn says. “We like to have two movies that we feel strongly are going to have commercial success in order to subsidize the entire week.” He also notes that Row House and Atlas Bottle Works, a craft-beer shop under the same roof, are part of the same business. “At this point, the movie theater would not exist without the beer store,” he says.
Even with careful consideration of audience demand (and the evergreen sales power of beer) there are still weeks that don’t seem to connect. In December 2014, Row House featured a quartet of films about World War II from non-American perspectives.
“They were amazing films; I loved every single one of them,” Mendelssohn says. “[They were] films that strongly influenced a lot of other movies — and no one cared. It was by far our worst week.”
“Die Hard” / photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
On the other hand, risky programming choices sometimes can pay off; a late-summer series of surrealist films, led by the cult hit “Donnie Darko,” far exceeded expectations.
In early 2016, Row House plans to introduce an in-house film club; for a monthly fee, members will receive discounts, exclusive invitations and the ability to (as a group) select one film per month to be screened solely for members. Those planning on weekly (or even more frequent) visits to the cinema can consider an annual all-access pass, granting unlimited admissions for $300.
While Mendelssohn and his team are unlikely to run out of ideas for new series (they’re currently trying to curate “Submarine Week”), he acknowledges that some traditions will emerge as the theater grows. “There’s probably going to be around 10 themes a year that are set in stone,” he says. “We’re always going to do our ‘best-of’ [from] the previous year. We’re always going to do a Christmas week. We’re always going to do a sci-fi marathon.
“It’s part of the joy of running a movie theater — coming up with ideas and the movies that come along with them.”
Row House Cinema
4115 Butler St., Lawrenceville, 412/904-3225; [rowhousecinema.com]