Since everyone in New York now visits Austin on the regular, or at least knows from social-media word-of-mouth to idealize a sort of a hip-hedonistic Austin of the mind, it was inevitable that Williamsburg would eventually get a movie theater like the Alamo Drafthouse, Austin’s beloved movie theater/bar/restaurant/anti-texting standard-bearer. And lo: the Nitehawk is now open on Metropolitan, just west of Berry, on the first two floors of a long-awaited new rental development with an LED light display on its facade.
The first floor features an open-air cafe; the theater lobby, complete with a bar featuring upwards of a half-dozen taps, is on the second floor. There are two tiny theaters up here; the bathrooms and a third theater are down the back staircase.
The Nitehawk encourages you to show up 30-45 minutes ahead of showtimes, to sit through their pre-shows (more on which shortly), and order the carefully prepared food well ahead of the start time. Waiters were telling moviegoers that they won’t be allowed to serve alcohol in the theaters until September, though I’ve also been told that unless NYC law changes they won’t be able to serve in the theaters period; presumably you could get your ticket and hang out in the lobby, but then you’d miss the video (set to Devo’s “Mongoloid”!) explaining how the ordering system works once the movie starts. (As in Austin, there are several layers of instruction—online, in print at the theater, in person from servers—explaining how you can write down your order, stick it up like a flag at your table, and wait for a hunched-down server to scuttle along to take it; they also bring your bills later. The staff at the Nitehawk is already quite light-footed and well-balanced.)
This past weekend I caught a movie in Theater 3, which seats 28 (it’s the smallest of the three); the tables are for two, rather than Austin’s long rows, and the three tiers of seats are raised subtly up on platforms from the floor in this improvisational but effective screening room. (“Like some friend’s dad’s basement,” a friend observed, not disapprovingly, if that friend’s dad basement was a subdivided commercial loft space with springs in the ceiling for soundproofing.)
The movies, then, will have to play in a small room’s sound system, projected digitally on a screen that’s bigger than a big-screen TV, anyway. It opened with Midnight in Paris, The Trip, and Submarine. The Cinema Director, John Woods—who cofounded the Reel Life video stores—told me he anticipates showing mostly fare similarly situated along the studio-indie axis; the booker is Jeffrey Jacobs, who was involved with the Angelika at its outset in the 80s, and has more recently booked for BAM.
Those theaters—which both offer a cultured nice night out—occupy a niche that’s a good one for the Nitehawk to fill. Long under-screened, Williamsburg is suddenly abounding in movie theaters: the owners of charmingly independent multiplex Cobble Hill Cinemas will operate a new 6-screen first-run theater on Driggs and Grand, and on the other side of the scale, UnionDocs and the Spectacle continue to offer scrappily eclectic underground and repertory programming.
The Nitehawk also looks to offer a slightly more youthful, if not cultish, engagement with the movies. Next Sunday night at 10, they’ll be showing Friday the 13th: The Orphan as part of a late-night film series dedicated to junky VHS semi-favorites. “We’re also planning to layer in retrospective series later this year that will be theme driven and incredibly diverse,” Woods told me: “A lot of people have never had the chance to see their favorite old movies projected on the big screen and we aim to change that.” I wonder whether “theme-driven” means acknowledged favorites and lesser-known items assembled under a cheeky—the IFC Center has done especially well with this of late, surmounting the Landmark Sunshine as the place where NYU students go when they want to get out of the house to watch a movie someone they know owns on DVD.
Woods emphasized to me his commitment on an “integrated” experience, and that’s evident from the shorts that play in the 45 minutes you have to place your order and chat up your date. The Alamo Drafthouse preshow is a model of YouTube gold-mining, but the Nitehawk feels more programmed: for Submarine, a Wes Anderson-y teen romance imported from Britain, the preshow featured vintage British invasion clips and quirky undersea stop-motion animation. The Nitehawk’s also hoping to feature local filmmakers prominently in the preshow; several are already in rotation and they’re actively soliciting more.
The food, too, is “integrated,” with drink and food specials inspired by the films screening. (If we had seen The Trip we could have gotten scallops, which is a good thing because I’ve never wanted scallops as badly as I did after seeing The Trip.) The food, prepared by chef Saul Bolton (The Vanderbilt), is good—the small plates are extra-small, the popcorn bowls extra-huge, dry, subtle—probably better than it needs to. (My veggie burger was pretty far to the right side of a bell curve, especially for, you know, a veggie burger to eat while watching a movie.)
But then, the whole experience is almost ostentatiously perfectly curated, down to the posters lining the walls (Body Double and Eyes Without a Face, Clint Eastwood and Jacques Tati). As more money flows into North Brooklyn, along with cultural consumers with less specialized tastes, the Nitehawk suggests a thoughtful, useful design for living.