At the center of the spacious, brightly lit room, lodged between the small circular tables encircled by empty metal chairs, are comfortably soft, brownish-red sofas below the light-reflecting hanging chandelier. It is a quiet, brisk Tuesday morning— a day like any other— in this downtown café at W. Houston St. and Mercer St. in the busy Soho district of New York City, just moments after its doors have been opened for another day of business.
Barely any sound can be heard at first, except for the occasional shuffle behind the café counter from its manager, Shamimur Rahman, a man with dark, penetrating eyes who pensively scans the emptiness before him, alert for any signs of life. Polite and soft-spoken with a slight accent that drifts into his speech only at times, Rahman, or “Rocky,” appears almost out of place behind the counter of vegan pastries, with a hoodie the color of his jet-black hair against the contrasting warmth of the café.
What really sets this café apart from others is not simply its vegan pastries or its community of customers— though diverse and equally unique— but its location. Found in the lobby of Angelika Film Center, an art house theater opened in 1989 that showcases award-winning films from festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Toronto International, and Tribeca, the café as well as the theater itself, caters to an eclectic mix of customers. Happythankyoumoreplease, an R-rated film directed by Josh Radnor from the television series, How I Met Your Mother, earned the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize nomination in the dramatic category during the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
The house manager of Angelika Film Center noted that Radnor’s involvement in the series garnered viewership from the “weird kind of people who watch that show.”
(Ed. Note: The house manager at the time of publication has since requested that his name and photo be redacted from this piece.)
Tall, lanky, and thoughtfully articulated, the house manager possesses an artistic side that is easy to miss, especially as his position overseeing business operations within the theater seems almost like an entirely new life. It is hard to imagine that two-and-a-half years ago, he had already graduated college as a French major and was an actor in theater and small indie film productions, when he came to a sudden epiphany that his “path was going more towards a business side.”
“It always changes depending on the film— if we had like City of God for example, which was a Brazilian film, it’s funny how many Brazilians that you see,” he remarked. He quickly added, “So it changes for whoever’s going to be involved and the film, but mostly we get more yuppies than anything— yuppies, hipsters, those kinds of folk— you wouldn’t see folk who go to Regal 42nd Street or Union Square.”
During the busier days of the week, from Fridays to Sundays, Angelika Film Center, according to the house manager, can slowly accumulate 2000 to 3000 customers a day. On every other day, the theater is lucky enough to get 500 to 600 customers a day. Most of these customers are adults paying $13 or senior citizens paying $9 a ticket. At Angelika, which showcases more PG and R rated films that are not so family-oriented and kid-friendly, the presence of children is rare.
While Angelika Film Center is an established art house theater, however, it is not without its problems. “I actually started working here when the real owner— when the first owner of this place— was still running this theater and I saw a lot of changes since then,” remarked Rocky, who has been working at Angelika for ten years on and off. “It was the first independent theater, it actually had independent movies playing, and on top of it, they had a restaurant type of environment.”
In the first issue of indieWIRE, a daily news service for the indie community, published on July 1996, indieWIRE reported that Reading Investment Company was soon to purchase the theater, which would be operated by City Cinemas. In a press release from Jessica Saleh Hunt, the president of the Film Center, Hunt promised then that Reading and City Cinemas intended to “preserve the character and mandate of the Angelika.”
The house manager and Rocky agree that this is not the case.
“It brings in a more corporate atmosphere— there’s a hierarchy, almost like an army— you have a general on top and everything just trickles down from there,” said the house manager. “So it’s difficult for independent theaters, or the appearance of independent theaters, at least in the Angelika’s case, to be independent under such a hierarchy.” He added, “Anthology [Film] Archives is probably a little bit better— there’s no proven ground for the films, there is no filter that goes through there.”
For now, Angelika Film Center continues to struggle with its identity as an independent theater.