Our county has long served as a location for some of Hollywood’s largest tentpole flicks, from the Tom Cruise remake War of the Worlds to Martin Scorsese’s monumental drama The Departed. Perhaps less conspicuous is Westchester’s fleet of impressive movie theaters and film festivals, which may well rival those found in the major metropolis to our south.
With the summer heat in full swing, there is no better time to explore the breadth of Westchester’s film culture, stretching to include lovingly restored historical theaters and scrappy film fests quickly gaining steam.
According to Brian Ackerman, founding director of programming at Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center, events that transcend the usual movie screening help drive attendance at art-house theaters. “The particularly special thing about the JBFC is that we probably have 200 events a year, and that means we have 200 industry professionals who come and interact with the audience,” he says. “Whether they’re filmmakers, actors, writers, or simply experts on subjects within the film, it just creates an environment of dialogue and interaction that, I think, is really valuable.”
Clayton Bushong, director of programming, marketing, and theater operations at The Picture House in Pelham, agrees it is this attention to programming and ancillary events that separates local indie theaters from mainstream cinemas. “We always try to program a range of films, those from well-known, established filmmakers to young up-and-comers,” explains Bushong. “To set us apart from the multiplexes, we invite all of these filmmakers to come talk about the inspiration behind their work and provide our audiences with a behind-the-screen glimpse of the magic of moviemaking.”
“There’s no better time to explore the breadth of Westchester’s film culture…”
In addition, both the JBFC and The Picture House occupy buildings with tremendous historical and regional significance. The Picture House’s edifice was originally constructed in 1921, years before films had sound to accompany their images. It was saved from the wrecking ball by a group of concerned citizens, called the Pelham Picture House Preservation, in 2001. Today, the building’s sleek retro architecture is as fetching as it was when Charlie Chaplin ruled the silver screen.
Meanwhile, the JBFC has its own storied past, originally constructed in 1925 as the Rome Theatre — the first cinema in Westchester County — and given a second lease on life (as well as a new name) in 2001. Add to this the Bedford Playhouse, which now shows a range of superb films in an elegant 1947 theater that was lovingly restored in 2017.
Art-house theaters aren’t the only local organizations that are taking innovative approaches to film screenings. The Yonkers Film Festival, or YoFi Fest, similarly balances audience access to filmmakers and actors with a roster of more than 150 independent shorts, full-length features, documentaries, and other works. YoFi has also managed to separate itself from the pack by offering a “mini film school,” which features workshops led by lauded industry professionals.
And although they lie just outside the borders of our county, the Greenwich International Film Festival (GIFF) and Focus on French Cinema are both intensely popular cinematic affairs. Expect to see well-known actors, directors, and a host of everyday movie lovers at GIFF, which features panel discussions, a gala, and screenings throughout the region.
Meanwhile, this year’s Focus on French Cinema boasted 16 French-film premieres and events, including a breakfast and roundtable with actors and directors.
Although the region’s cultural powerbrokers have ample time to schmooze at the above fests, theaters like Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers and The Avon in Stamford host a roster of midnight movies and cult flicks aimed squarely at young adults. Films like The Big Lebowski and Blue Velvet are common fare at The Avon, while Chopping Mall and Speed are just a few examples of cult favorites recently on show at the Drafthouse.
Lauren deBuys, Rob Reiner, and Clayton Bushong attend an event at The Picture House.
Despite their far-ranging differences, all of these cinematic institutions have one thing in common: They foster camaraderie. “We believe that film is an art form to be enjoyed together,” says Bushong. “With so many different ways for people to see films and consume media these days, we feel that it’s vital to provide an inviting space where people can come together to share art and ideas as a community.”
Ackerman recalls a prime example of this at the JBFC. “When I went to see An Elephant Sitting Still, a four-hour Chinese film that is profoundly unhappy, there were only 12 people there, all together,” he recalls. “But, at the end of it, we wound up talking to each other in the theater. We all felt like we had been through something. I walked out so happy that people are having that experience. There was something so beautiful and deep about it.”
In recognition of that experience, the JBFC has added two new screens over the past three and a half years, according to Ackerman. One obvious reason for this impressive growth is Westchester’s theatergoing public, which is especially appreciative of cultural bastions like Bedford Playhouse and the JBFC.
“The local audience has been sort of groomed over years to look to see what’s going on at theaters, and they’re really trusting,” notes Ackerman. “And we’re trying, as programmers, to trust our audience and be responsive to them. So, it’s an interesting dialogue between the institution and the public.”
When asked why art-house theaters and film fests are still so popular, even among teens, Ackerman has a prescient response. “I think it’s a testament to what’s going on in the world,” he says, “It’s a testament to people wanting to be involved in some way, to have a dialogue. It’s about being there, in the flesh, with others.”