Being a movie buff in New York City doesn't mean very much if you haven't seen a film at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village. The city's great repertory houses, such as the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Anthology Film Archives, can always be counted on to roll out their tributes to Godard or Antonioni, and to spotlight the esoteric artists and historic movements of cinema. But it is only at the Pioneer where one can catch titles like "The Machine Girl" (about a teenager with a machine gun for an arm who sets out for revenge on a gang of bullies who tortured her brother) and "Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead" (no explanation needed) alongside foreign favorites such as "Flight of the Red Balloon."
For legions of young filmmakers, it is here, in the city's smallest monoplex, where one can find an audience for a film that couldn't be shown anywhere else. For these directors, the Pioneer is not just a small venue supporting emerging artists, but the epicenter of an independent film scene that has long since been squeezed out of most cities — and is currently being forced out of Manhattan — in favor of corporate-owned independent theater chains that cater to the specialty divisions of major movie studios.
In only eight years of operation, the Pioneer has provided a home for hundreds of self-sustained filmmakers who don't have a corporate safety net waiting below them; for the last four of those years, every one of those artists has been greeted at the door by the theater's inimitable programmer, Ray Privett.
"I always thought it was a mistake to try and compete head-on with the larger theaters, with places like Film Forum or Landmark or the Angelika or Village East," Mr. Privett said. "If you try to compete and do the same thing, you'll lose every time, since there's only so much you can do with one screen and 99 seats. Instead, I wanted to do the absolute opposite — to cater to the most out-there niches possible, to audiences like the local Croatian audience, which has been essentially abandoned by the 'mainstream' film community."
Now, with the recent news that the 31-year-old Mr. Privett is departing the Pioneer to concentrate on building his own production company, many on the outskirts of the city's film community are left to wonder if the Pioneer will uphold his support for unknown filmmakers. Through the years, as Mr. Privett looked beyond the mainstream, the Pioneer catalog grew steadily more diverse. His tenure brought exploitation films and great art experiments, documentaries and lesser-seen foreign titles, revivals and anarchist masterpieces. In one of his most cherished bookings, Mr. Privett reached out to Belarusian immigrants in 2006 for the screening of an underground work called "Long Knives Night" — a breakthrough telling of the 1996 anti-constitutional coup in Belarus that Mr. Privett had to help smuggle out of the country.
"It's really one of the great films of all time," he said. "To see the expressions of the people coming out of the theater, the expressions of the old men who had lived in the country under the situations shown here, it was remarkable."
Not surprisingly, Mr. Privett's initial aim was to be a film critic, but he found himself at the mercy of editors who only wanted to cover films with distribution deals. "I just didn't understand," he said. "If a critic's job is to be curious about what's going on, to push people toward discovering new things, then why does a film's distribution have anything to do with what we're doing as critics?"
So as the 21st century dawned, he channeled his passion into Chicago's Facets Multimedia, where he worked with the venue's extensive independent film library and secured small releases for several foreign films. That, as it turned out, would be his ticket to New York. Four years later, Mr. Privett has overseen the most successful period in the Pioneer's brief but unstable history. That's why, when he announced his plans on his Web blog earlier this year to leave the Pioneer, the posting quickly circulated among those who had come to rely on his curatorial acumen. Many wondered about the fate of the Pioneer; but most wanted to know what he'd be doing next.
Speaking with The New York Sun recently, Mr. Privett confirmed the details of his two new projects. First, he is committing himself to the development of a new arts club known as the Queensbridge Theater, which will be headed by Robert Prichard (the former owner of Surf Reality Theater on the Lower East Side) and real estate developer Michael Waldman. As envisioned, Queensbridge will occupy an entire building in Long Island City housing a restaurant, a dance floor, and a space for concerts and performances. Mr. Privett said the venue, which is scheduled to open in the fall, will ideally remain open for 20 or 21 hours a day and cater to both Manhattanites and local residents.
But the bulk of Mr. Privett's efforts will be poured into his own company, Cinema Purgatorio LLC, which will help "filmmakers to find unconventional solutions to distribution and exhibition problems." Essentially, Mr. Privett aims to spawn little Pioneer Theaters all over the area, giving shelter to artists and projects that would typically rely on venues like the Pioneer to find an audience. One of his first projects, Roger Weisberg's "Critical Condition," a documentary surveying the health insurance industry and the plight of the uninsured, will arrive in theaters this summer.
It is yet unknown whether Mr. Privett's decision to remain involved in the local film scene will help to assuage mounting fears that Manhattan is no longer a place where independent artists can thrive. Queensbridge, for starters, has left the borough entirely. And Cinema Purgatorio is aiming to advocate for films outside of the conventional channels.
"This is all definitely part of the general trend," Mr. Privett said. "With Queensbridge, I'm working with a lot of people from the Lower East Side who can no longer continue having things on the Lower East Side. People in the film world are going to Texas and Germany. Artists, filmmakers, movie theaters — we're getting pushed out of Manhattan, and my evolution is yet more proof of that."