“There’s a lot that we’ve been able to accomplish in five years– in this space, in this neighborhood– and say, ‘We’re still here,'” explained Mark Freado, one of the longer standing volunteers at Spectacle, an independent 30-seat movie theater run solely by other volunteers like him. “There’ve been a lot of similar spaces around here that we’ve had to say goodbye to recently, which sucked. I think we were all really nervous that we were going to get added to that list and have to say, ‘Now what?’”
Since late 2009, Spectacle has screened rarely-seen art house, avant-garde horror, and forgotten and unrecognized films out of a former bodega on Williamsburg’s South Side. They’ve been fueled by not much more than ticket sales and their own sweat and blood– but a rent increase on a new lease has led them to reach out for support. “We built this place ourselves out of an old bodega, it’s extremely important to us, and we want to stay here,” Mark explained.
Over the summer, the landlord of 124 South 3rd street (walking toward the waterfront, what remains of the Domino Sugar Refinery seems to rise out of the street as it bends downward in the distance) approached the volunteers at Spectacle with new lease terms. “The rent went up– not as dramatically as it could have, especially in this neighborhood,” Mark explained. But the real challenge was posed by the new terms of the lease, which required Spectacle to complete some improvements on the building. “Working with the building was both a blessing and a curse in that regard because we want to be able to stay here, they want us to do these things, we want to work together on it, so it was just a ton of back and forth and a lot of hair-pulling.”
We recently received an email from Vanessa McDonnell, another volunteer, who described a “tumultuous summer” for the organization. When we met with Mark he explained that Spectacle went ahead and signed a new lease. “We’re here for at least the next five years, probably ten,” he assured us. But there’s still a nerve-racking road ahead, as the volunteer-run theater must raise $35,000 in a Kickstarter campaign (with some seriously sick prizes) that starts today in order to meet the building owner’s demands in addition to making some improvements of their own to the oh-so-DIY theater. “It’s pretty terrifying,” Mark admitted.
If all goes as planned, Spectacle is going to be closed for six weeks and “and reopen in January with a ‘Best of the First Five Years’ in the new space,” Mark explained. But first, they have to tackle a major renovation project. “We need to fix the risers, put in a permanent 16mm set-up, redo the sound, put in a new HVAC, do some stuff to the back room to set up storage to archive the posters, fix up the bathroom– a lot of really practical things.” But one of the major money sucks is revamping the facade, which still looks like the ratty bodega the place once was.
Spectacle’s exterior is one of the major indicators it’s an outlier in a neighborhood that looks vastly different from how it did even just a few years ago when this place opened. Back then, 285 Kent was just a twinkle in John Barclay’s eye (the place was still going strong as Paris London West Nile) and Cameo Gallery (which will close at the end of November) had been around for about a year in the back of The Lovin’ Cup Café. Walk by the theater now, and Spectacle looks almost like a specter of Williamsburg’s Christmas past. Yes, that’s real poster art in the windows, not something made to look like poster art. And yep, that’s authentic peeling paint, not reclaimed wood with a factory-antiqued finish.
And that refusal to change gets at why Spectacle continues to be so valuable. The volunteers here are steadfastly committed to maintaining a few of their very important ways of doing things. The incredible poster art is one example. With the advent of the Facebook event (a context in which the poster isn’t even visually compatible, really) putting any sort of effort into a physical flyer has become less common than a printed ticket. “Nobody does it anymore,” I said sadly. “I know!” Mark agreed. “And some of these people paint them with oil paints– the amount of time and effort people are willing to put into these is amazing.”
But maybe the most essential element that makes Spectacle, er, Spectacle is their rabid protection of their ticket prices. “We make $5 a seat and it goes right back into rent,” Mark explained. “That’s something that’s really important for us, to say that every show is $5.” Now, even with the prospect of having more rent due at the end of each month and being faced with a long list of building improvement demands from the landlord, Spectacle won’t budge. “The main thread through all of that was tickets are $5, we want to keep tickets $5,” Mark said. “We can’t raise our prices to $12 a ticket or something, because– what’s the point?”
Mark Freado’s been at Spectacle since May of 2010, “about six months after they opened,” he recalled. It didn’t take long for me to notice he had a tattoo on his right arm of the Spectacle logo, a type-set ‘S’ on fire. After finishing up film school in Ohio, Mark moved to New York City and found the community of like-minded film freaks he was searching for at Spectacle. “This is a place where I’m always going to see something new, possibly my new favorite film and be able to talk about it with a room full of people who are just as excited, or maybe not excited and I can find out why,” he explained. “I was just like, I’m never going to run out of movies to watch here.”
It’s the volunteers who bring the unmatched caliber of programming to Spectacle– these are films that defy the canon while remaining important to cinematic history and succeed at being entertaining, rattling, weird, and thought provoking. “I would definitely say there’s a vibe,” Mark agreed. “It’s great because it’s not just art house movies or any other one thing. It cuts such a wide swathe that still fits into this whole vibe, especially in October. It’s a big month for us.”
“Spectober,” the theater’s special programming for the month of October is now in its fifth year at Spectacle and it’s a perfect representation of how Spectacle’s programming defies expectations about what any one kind of programming should be. In this case, that’s Halloween movies. “It’s not just horror, but stuff that fits into this eerie, weird kind of vibe,” Mark explained.
And Spectacle goes well beyond simply screening films and calling it a night. The theater is a reliable source for interesting discussions, work by local filmmakers, and relative unknowns. Mark emphasized the importance of being physically present with film as a central ethos of this theater. “For a lot of these Q&As and live scores, you can’t just download the experience– if you didn’t go, you missed out on Joe Bob Briggs, or you missed Phil Tippett doing a personal history of stop motion, or Ben Morea talking to a room full of people, or Peter Davis doing a Q&A with six people.”
If the programming sounds esoteric, it is. But Spectacle is also interested in attracting people who might not know a great deal about cinema. Despite what you might glean from the postered-over front windows (like, actually it’s gotta be real dark in here), it’s not a secretive or closed-off institution. “As much as it’s great to have all these volunteers that keep everything going, we’re nothing without an audience,” Mark said. “And fostering a place where people want to be and want to hang out is important. People come for a screening at 7:30 and they’ll be like, ‘I think I’ll see the rest of the movies, I just wanna stay and hang out.’ That’s always been really important too– knowing that people want to be here and want to take part in the things we’re trying to put together.”
At this point, Mark estimates there are about 40 volunteers all told. “Right when it started it was three, and then it just kind of grew,” he explained. “And maybe it’s a little more than 40, because there are people who don’t even live here who do trailers and posters– there’s one guy in Seattle and another guy in Tennessee.” Of course a smaller circle deals with programming, but there’s a real sense of community here that rivals certainly any other theater in Brooklyn.
“It’s really exciting to have that sense of regulars, and a lot of people who were coming to see movies are now involved as volunteers, and make posters, and cut trailers— that kind of stuff,” Mark explained. “It was always a place where if you wanted to be involved you could say, ‘How can I help?’”
Though he’s still here as often as he can be, Mark recently moved from Crown Heights to Ditmas Park, making for a significantly longer trek to the theater. I imagined a volunteer staff that was slowly getting pushed farther and farther away from the organization they’d put so much work into, Mark said that while some people have had to move too far away to keep coming back, “this is still our home base.”
Still, I wondered if Spectacle, as an institution whose reach seems to be expanding ever outward (a screening of their impressive trailer reel at MoMA, for example), even needs Williamsburg anymore. “There’s another bigger conversation about what is Spectacle outside of 124 South 3rd, and what if we had to move,” Mark explained. “The consensus was it wouldn’t really be Spectacle anymore, so being able to secure this lease and stay in this space, was a huge victory in a neighborhood that’s changing so rapidly and so drastically.”
And practically speaking moving to, oh say, a warehouse in Bushwick would still set them back. “Certainly it’s going to be easier to renovate this space, a space that we know, a space that we’re all familiar with, a space that we’ve spent hundreds of hours in– we know what we can do and when we can do it based on having been here for five years,” Mark said. “If we move to a different space, we won’t know the neighborhood and we’re going to lose that sense of community. I just feel like it would plateau our growth. Even if we went to a bigger space, it would stop us and we would have to kind of start from the ground up, and we’d have to rebuild in more ways than one.”
Mark added that having a sense of permanency adds to an organization’s clout, not just within the neighborhood, but in the mind’s of outsiders who are less than familiar. “Being able to say, ‘We’ve been in this place for x amount of time,’ is a really big deal, and I think people respond to that and say, ‘Oh, this place is gonna stick around,'” Mark explained. “I think it’s a really special place and that no matter where it was, people would gravitate towards it. But here, I think that this community is especially responsive to it, in the wake of losing all these other similar kinds of spaces. And people know that you’re going to see something here you’re not going to see anywhere else. I’d like to think it’s a point of pride for the community.”