The Row House Cinema Interview
The man behind Lawrenceville’s new Row House Cinema, Brian Mendelssohn, wasn’t necessarily looking to open an 83-seat theater when he first laid eyes on the former Star Discount building at the intersection of Butler and Main Streets, a space oft overlooked but one possessing much potential. We got a chance to chat with Brian for a bit about his new project.
He believes the space “is the center of the neighborhood, and there’s a lot of active nightlife here. I thought we could tap into that in a different way rather than just opening a bar.” And so, he did just that, recently opening the intimate theater and adjacent beer shop, Atlas Bottle Works. Homestead’s wildly successful Smoke Taqueria is in the midst of transitioning into the remaining space to complete the trifecta, one that might appear to outsiders as a clever idea, when in reality it has been meticulously planned down to every detail. From the salt on the popcorn, to the custom beer coolers planned for the basement of the bottle shop, to the locally-made-and-designed marquee, Mendelssohn hasn’t left a single aspect of this project to chance.
At the end of the day, a movie theater is just a theater. We’re able to do a lot of things. We worked with Lauren from VIA. We brought in different people early on during the construction process who represented different aspects of things. We wanted to make sure the space worked for what they were trying to do. And not just that it worked, but it had to be useful.
The reception of Row House Cinema has been met with warmth and curiosity, funneling a steady stream of attendees in for each of the day’s showings. For Mendelssohn, the personal and professional aspects of this experience have been quite different.
It’s a personal project. I didn’t get into the movie business to make money. It’s definitely more of a passion project in the sense that I love movies and this has always been my dream. I was really excited to pull it off. Personally, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. It’s to me, still a work in progress, and I’m always thinking about how to improve it. I’m more interested in solving the problems right now, and eventually, maybe in six months it will sink in and I can be like, holy shit, this is awesome.
Business-wise, I didn’t know if the idea of it would translate to people actually showing up. I’ve been happy with how many people actually do show up, and on top of that, the people are very happy with their experience. The biggest challenge I have is, how do you get someone off their couch or pull them away from the computer and going on Netflix? Why would I go ahead and spend additional money and go down the street and go see Shaft? That’s the question of this whole project. You have to create an experience. You have to create a magical moment for people, a place you want to go on a date to and make a night out of it, and that’s what we’re shooting for.
I’ve been doing development work in Lawrenceville for a little while now and I really love the neighborhood. When this building made itself available to me, I thought a lot about what it lent itself to be. There were a couple projects I was looking at during that time, and I felt like this one was a solid project because of the location. It’s right in the heart of Lawrenceville, right at the intersection of Butler and Main, which is where all the different roads coming to Lawrenceville lead to.
The theater itself showcases a variety of themed movie weeks – everything from “Tragical Magical Week” to summer blockbusters” to rom coms and back to school.
We try to tie what’s going on in the world to the movies we show. So when it’s baseball season, we’ll do a week of baseball movies.
The ideas come easy. The approvals to show these films, not so much.
It’s a massive process. You have to work with every studio to get the rights to be able to show it. We structure our deals with the studios to go from Friday-Thursday with all of our movies.
Other projects include partnering with local businesses to show documentaries. They might collaborate with Espresso a Mano for a coffee-themed documentary, or AIA to show an architect doc. They even have plans to own up to their Indie GoGo campaign’s sponsor level of choosing a film to be shown at the theater. That week’s movies include everything from Laurel Hardy to Harold & Kumar go to White Castle.
Brian even went the extra mile to hand-pick his staff. His general managers for both Atlas and Row House are each experts in their respective fields, and he entrusted those individuals to recruit their own “cream of the crop” staff, as he puts it.
They’re even diving into the realm of creativity by developing homemade trailers for certain films they show. “I love trailers, but I don’t like the way they are done. I think they reveal too much, Brian says.” And so, they try to select movies people will get excited about and some that are lesser-known, such as Amelie. In terms of legality, they aren’t sure if the trailers can be put online, but it’s A-OK to show these homemade trailers in their theater. “The idea is both to have fun and to do things that are different to stand out, and it’s fun for the staff to get involved like that. We told them that when we hired them.” Brian’s tastes become quite apparent through some of his selections and themes. We closed our convo by asking him what his top five favorite movies are.
Brian’s Top 5 Favorite Movies:
(In no particular order)
The Science of Sleep
A Clockwork Orange
Do the Right Thing
Check out their website for a schedule of showings. “Tragical Magical” week is wrapping up today and “Summer Blockbusters” kicks off Friday.
Photo Credit: Shanning Wan