By New York’s skyscraping, neon-lit standards, Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony for Downtown Community Television’s new all-documentary cinema was fairly low-key. When it opens in 2015, the downtown theatre will seat only 73, so this was miles from promo-happy Broadway.
Still, the idea of welcoming the first all-doc theatre in the U.S. was more than sufficient to entice filmmakers Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock to grab commemorative golden shovels. They joined city officials and other supporters of DCTV, the 41-year-old, Peabody- and Emmy-winning production/education entity known for films such as Baghdad ER and High on Crack Street. The groundbreaking was held on the street in front of DCTV’s headquarters, a French chateau-inspired 1896 firehouse on the TriBeCa/Chinatown border which will also house the cinema.
Along with documentarians, New York’s key nonfiction TV players (HBO, Showtime, A+E, CNN, Discovery, etc.) have a major stake in the new theatre’s emergence. The venue will feature state-of-the-art 4K and 3D projection and Internet connectivity. More importantly, it will allow films to screen commercially for one week, the key criterion for Academy Award eligibility. Despite commercial breakthroughs in recent years, getting theatres to play docs is never an easy task, even in a cinephile town where the Landmark Sunshine, IFC Center and Lincoln Center have all opened or expanded in the past decade.
“The movies began here in New York City,” Moore said, noting Thomas Edison’s screening of the first film in 1896 at a music hall at Broadway and 34th Street. “People love nonfiction. They love to read nonfiction. Nonfiction television is some of the most popular television. In film, it’s been treated as some sort of weird cousin. This is going to thrive and I really hope it becomes a model.”
Moore added a personal note of attachment to DCTV, recalling being inspired to move from print journalism to documentary film after seeing a series of TV specials in the late-1970s produced and directed by DCTV cofounder Jon Alpert. “There was a show on around one or two in the morning on NBC. I’d get home and turn it on and there’s be 10 to 20 minutes of Jon as camera man, sound man, interview - a one-man crew, essentially - down in Nicaragua, El Salvador. … It was just an amazing thing to see him do this in such a personal way. He’s inspired generations of filmmakers.”