Scene Is Set for Documentary-Only Theater, Long-Awaited in Tribeca

The landmark 1896 former firehouse and home to DCTV at Lafayette and White Street (left) will have a White Street entrance to the new theater (rendering at right). Images: DCTV and Lee H. Skolnik Architecture + Design Partnership  

Jan. 31, 2019

An all-documentary movie theater is coming to Tribeca.

City approvals and $4.5 million in funding are now in place for construction of the 74-seat Doc House, on the first floor of Downtown Community Television, the documentary film and education center in the landmark former firehouse at White and Lafayette Streets. In an interview, DCTV co-founder and co-director Jon Alpert said he expects the screenings to begin by the end of the year, with construction to start as soon as April.

“We’ll do everything we can to make this worthy of a place that I think documentaries should be inhabiting,” said Alpert, 70, whose own non-fiction productions have earned 16 Emmys, two Oscar nominations and numerous other awards.

If the promise of a documentary theater at DCTV sounds familiar, it’s because the much heralded groundbreaking, with local elected officials and doc luminaries, took place nearly six years ago.

“We were celebrating that we had all our approvals, we had the money we thought we needed to build this,” Alpert recalled. Then the city sent the project out to bid, and costs came back more than $200,000 over the $2.5 million that was provided through federal post-9/11 and city and state funding.

“When the city sends it out [to bid], and it doesn’t come in within that exact parameter, you cannot get it done,” Alpert said. “You go back to square one again.”

“Embarrassed and humiliated” by the experience, Alpert started over, this time maneuvering through a thicket of city regulations that would allow DCTV to be in charge of its own construction, and reimbursed when it was completed. The process took four years and ended this month with an approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for construction of an entrance on White Street. (The first approval had lapsed.)  

In the meantime, DCTV raised an additional $2.5 million on its own, which will cover soaring construction costs, allow for a bigger lobby and bathrooms, and pay for lowering the floors of the theater and lobby.

“The projector is going to be the best projector money can buy, the screen the best screen, the audio the best audio, and the chairs the best chair,” he said.

“I want you to walk in here and go, ‘Wow!’ This is really nice!’”

“As a youth of the 60s and 70s I’m always interested in owning all the means of production,” he said. “Not being subject to somebody else’s priorities.”

It is thanks to DCTV’s ownership of the firehouse, bought from the city in 1989, that it has survived, Alpert noted, while other non-profit documentary institutions vanished long ago. “They had the skills, they had the passion,” he said. “But they were paying rent.”

The new theater will occupy a one-story former barn in the rear, originally built for the horses that pulled fire wagons. The lobby off White Street will occupy a space formerly used as a medical examining room by the Fire Department for firefighters on disability.

Alpert hopes to eventually open a second, adjacent screening room with 40 seats. Single screen theaters, he said, have trouble attracting top films because runs can’t be extended if the movie is a hit. Given his painful groundbreaking experience, he said he will avoid fundraising for the additional theater “until I have the real shovel in the ground” for the current project.

“Then I can bring all the people who love documentary films down here and say, ‘It’s really happening.’ Here’s the money in the bank, here’s the blueprints, here’s the budget, now we need the money for the second theater.”

Alpert said he believes the theaters can support themselves, but admits to uncertainty. “Nobody’s been in the business of exhibiting only documentaries.”

Revenue, he anticipates, will come from concessions, rental fees and ticket sales, as well as live streaming events with filmmakers. But he also expects Doc House to be a place where filmmakers and producers—given a dearth of available theaters—will want to screen their movies in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration. (Theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles are an Academy requirement for feature-length films.)

Alpert sees that as a way to support DCTV’s mission of providing classes, equipment rental, and editing facilities, as well as screening opportunities, to the segment of the documentary community that otherwise cannot afford them.

“We’re hoping we can work both ends of the doc economy,” said Alpert, who began his own filmmaking career in the early 1970s by showing short films about local issues from an old mail truck on Canal Street. “We’re enabling the poorer folks with revenue that we will get from providing four-wall screening opportunities for the well-endowed productions.”

“If we build a really nice place,” he added, “people will come.”