It seems like every few weeks for the past six months, there's been a change in the tally of Philadelphia's already-low number of movie screens. The AMC Dine-In Fashion District 8 on East Market Street opened in November? Add eight. The Philadelphia Film Center's Black Box reopened after renovations in December? Add one. The Lightbox Film Center in University City closed at the end of December? Subtract one. Ritz at the Bourse in Old City shut down last January? Subtract six. This month, we welcome one back, with the relocation of Lightbox Film Center on South Broad Street.
Jesse Pires is the director and curator of Lightbox, continuing in his 16-year role from Lightbox's former home. Following the closure of International House, Pires has made the move to the University of the Arts, where Lightbox has been reborn in the old Gershman Y building. Some projectionists and other support staff, many of whom were with Lightbox at the former location, have joined Pires in the move across town, although Pires is the venue's lone full-time staffer.
Lightbox screened the first movie at its new location on February 21, with Redoubt, the latest film from Cremaster Cycle creator Matthew Barney.
Who is “we”?
When Lightbox staffers learned that the International House building was going on the market, they knew they wanted to continue in another venue, but they had one big question, Pires says.
“We’d love to find a new home,” they thought. “But who is ‘we’? What is this entity?” After all, Lightbox itself has never been a singular nonprofit organization, or even a business entity at all.
"We had to…find a new partner who saw the same qualities that International House saw. So UArts ultimately stepped forward." The program has now transferred to the building that was the cultural center for the Gershman Y and its predecessor organizations for nearly a century, before the Gershman Y rebranded as the Gershman Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival in 2018, ending its lease of that space a little over a year ago.
Now and next
The theater's programming is set for now in the Levitt Auditorium, on the third floor of the building, although Pires said the eventual goal is to set up a new "state-of-the-art screening room" on the lower level, where the Gershman Y's pool was long located. The Levitt theater has its digital projector set up, although they're still working on getting the 35mm projector running.
Fundraising efforts are under way for the downstairs theater, Pires said, and they're hoping to open it "within a few years." The Levitt Auditorium may be lacking in popcorn, but it's a decent-sized theater with a huge screen and plenty of history.
The Philadelphia premiere of Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement (directed by James Schneider, Paul Bishow, and Sam Lavine), will screen on February 28. Coming in March is The Romanians: 30 Years of Cinema Revolution, a multi-film retrospective on Romanian cinema.
"We're in a new neighborhood, we're part of a university, so it'll be interesting to see what resonates with the public, as well as the students," Pires said. "I've always felt that the [Lightbox] programming was really exceptional, and kind of edgy, and innovative, so that's something we want to continue to do."
Lightbox will continue to feature a brand of international, repertory, and otherwise esoteric cinema that can't be found anywhere else in town. However, with the Ritz Bourse closing and possibly leaving certain foreign and indie films without a local home, Pires said he has been hearing from distributors hoping to book those sorts of films at his venue.
The new Lightbox is located just eight blocks away from the Philadelphia Film Society's Philadelphia Film Center. Pires said that the two organizations are planning to collaborate later this year on an Agnès Varda retrospective.
Through the years, the Lightbox has been a venue for annual film festivals, including the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, Exhumed Films, and the BlackStar Film Festival. Pires said he's been in touch with their organizers, and hopes to continue to partner with such events. BlackStar's website says its 2020 festival is running July 30 through August 2, but gives no specific location.
Meanwhile, west and north…
Even as Lightbox has departed University City, the neighborhood will soon gain a new venue for unconventional films. CinéSPEAK, an organization that's been hosting mobile screenings throughout the city for the last seven years, is preparing to open a 75-seat "microcinema" on Baltimore Avenue later this year. A community listening session is scheduled for March 7 at 4:30pm at Dahlak Paradise (4708 Baltimore Avenue), a block away from the planned location.
And in the “Eraserhood” (AKA Callowhill), PhilaMOCA, with its occasional film offerings, is preparing to re-open.
The Lightbox’s return, along with the rise of CinéSPEAK, is great news for Philadelphians who appreciate offbeat cinema, especially in areas of the city that have been underserved. The key, as always, will be drawing crowds.
What, When, Where
Lightbox Film Center has reopened at 401 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 717-6380 or lightboxfilmcenter.org.