There was a New York State law that prohibited you from serving alcohol in a movie theater. I wanted to see if that could be changed...
Since its inception in 2011, Nitehawk has firmly established itself as the premier, first-run movie theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Founder Matthew Viragh’s idea to collapse the dinner and a movie concept, long offered by places like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas and faraway places such as Athens, Greece, surprisingly didn’t exist anywhere in New York at the time. No longer do we suffer the indignity of crawling back into Manhattan to catch a screening or smuggling booze into a movie theater on a Friday night—Viragh overturned a law that prohibits the sale of alcohol in cinemas in New York. Nitehawk’s impressive curation of films aside, both new releases and revivals, the theater provides quality food and drink service. There are small tables conveniently arranged between seats and you can summon a server throughout screenings. What a novel idea!
With the notorious $9.3 million multiplex opening up soon in Williamsburg, an indisputable competitor aptly named Williamsburg Cinemas, Anthem decided to pay Viragh a visit to discuss the past, present and foreseeable future of Nitehawk, our favorite North Brooklyn triplex.
What were you doing prior to opening Nitehawk in Williamsburg?
I’m from Texas originally. I studied communication and advertising at the University of Texas. I moved up to New York around ten years ago to pursue photography, but sort of fell back into advertising here. It’s two or three years ago that I decided to try something different. I was sort of familiar with a dine-in cinema concept from my Texas days and I was surprised to find that nothing like that existed in New York. It took a lot of digging around to figure out why that was the case. There was a New York State law that prohibited you from serving alcohol in a movie theater. I wanted to see if that could be changed and, simultaneously, move forward with this concept. I found this location in 2010 and started building it out from there.
How was this concept funded? Did you find investors?
I was lucky enough to find investors along the way, not to mention the right team to execute the idea. One of our cinema directors has been in the neighborhood since the early ‘90s—he owned a video store called Real Life on Bedford Avenue, which had just closed when I first met him. He had actually been looking to set up a similar operation. Our other cinema director was going to school for film preservation at Eastman Kodak at the time. Those were the two people that I kind of started out with. We then found a bar manager, a GM and a chef. That’s how it came together over the course of maybe two years while developing the concept for Nitehawk.
And what steps needed to be taken in order to overturn this law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in movie theaters?
I was lucky enough to meet a lobbyist from Albany through my lawyer. He thought that, for one, it was a great idea to overturn it. More importantly, he thought it was feasible. We set out to challenge that law in 2011 and the process took around a year. We worked with a few senators and lawmakers that got behind it and supported it. It passed pretty much unanimously through the Senate and the House in the State legislature. In September of 2011, it was signed by Governor Cuomo.
I remember walking into this unassuming bar called the Nixon in Greece that was equipped with a small screening room a couple years ago. Looking back, it does seem weird to think something like that didn’t exist in New York for so long.
Nice! That’s really how this whole thing started. I wanted something like that in New York because I had enjoyed it back in Texas so much. We fought a law that was on the books since the Prohibition. It just sat there and it was very specific: “No consumption of alcohol in a motion picture theater.” It was kind of odd. I think the time was right because the State legislature was going through some trouble and this was obviously a way for them to earn more tax revenue. A lot of places in the U.S. had allowed this already, so it was actually a silly law to have in place in New York. This was one in a handful of laws that they passed in 2011. There are thousands of laws presented and only a few hundred gets passed each year. We were lucky to get it through in that sense.
Were you always a big fan of movies?
Definitely. I was always a big movie fan—on the sidelines. I didn’t go to film school or anything. I was always a huge fan of movies. I enjoyed going to the movies rather than watching something at home or on the computer. Also, combining food and drink always made the movie-going experience so much more exciting. I became a photographer and worked in fashion advertising for a while because, after moving to New York, I needed to make ends meet. It was fun, but I obviously prefer doing this now. It has become a huge passion of mine.
What’s your overall approach when it comes to the curation of movies at Nitehawk?
First and foremost, we’re not movie snobs at all. We’ll play the first-run films even if it’s mainstream. We want to pick the best films all across the board. It’s a tricky business, especially in New York because there’s so much competition going on. Film distributors only provide a certain amount of films to certain areas. That has always been a real challenge. We were lucky to get a film booker named Jeffrey Jacobs, who has been in the industry forever. He’s our lifeline to establish those connections with film distributors. As far as our overall philosophy, we know our audience—young adults that live in the neighborhood—and we want to cater to the locals. We definitely try to get as much turnover as possible by keeping the product fresh.
I bet the curating aspect of it gets quite specific when you’re trying to appeal to a crowd that’s particularly hip to film history and cult classics in this neighborhood.
With the retrospective stuff, we’re just scratching the surface of it. It took us a year just to get established and play the first-run movies we really wanted to be playing. We’re now really looking into showing more retrospective films during our midnight screenings and brunches. I get really excited about that kind of stuff. If you look at our website on any given weekend, you’ll see a large range of selections be it first-run movies to revivals. It probably looks like we have more screens than we actually do. We squeeze in a lot of different programming on just three screens here. Between two cinema directors, our programmer, our film booker and myself, we’re just constantly trying to fit a wide range of film into the mix.
Do you think this kind of concept for a movie theater might have been successful elsewhere in New York City other than Williamsburg?
I would like to think so. Maybe in terms of what we’re doing right now, it’s probably focused more on the neighborhood. This sort of concept could probably work in a lot of different places in New York. Everybody likes to go see a movie, and have good food and drinks. At that face level, it could work anywhere. It would ultimately come down to tweaking the programming a little bit to be more in line with whatever neighborhood you’re looking at and its culture.
How did you find your chef, Saul [Bolton], and your current bar manager?
The bar manager was a friend of a friend who had just moved here from Chicago. I just randomly ran into her one time when I was looking for a bar manager. It was this perfect coincidence. She had been managing Prune in the East Village before this. With Saul, I met him through a friend as well. It’s always a matter of meeting people through friends because I have a lot of friends in the food and drink industry. I met Saul probably six months before we opened and I just really enjoyed his company. He got onboard pretty quickly and helped us develop the menu. He was here six to eight months in before getting way too busy opening another restaurant. Saul had to scale back, but his whole team is in place here and has been since the beginning. Our current chef, Russell Dougherty, is currently running the kitchen and doing a great job. Are you familiar with Le Fooding?
The French food event?
We just hosted two brunches this past weekend for it. It was a four course brunch paired up with the film Saturday Night Fever on Saturday and The Warriors on Sunday. So we’re more focusing on that kind of side as well. We have the music and the film thing going, and then also want to combine Prix Fixe meals with a movie. We’re teaming up with Sixpoint in October to do a four course beer tasting and a three course food menu, all inspired by the film Apocalypse Now. We’re going to have beer come out at specific times throughout the movie. For instance, Sweet Action will come out during a really awesome action scene and Bengali Tiger will come out when they find the tiger in the pit. In that sense, we’re trying to take it into an even more curated level of experience.
How do you come up with ideas for your rotating menu? I’m assuming it’s not all about word association.
We meet every Monday to talk about upcoming movies. Russell, and our bar manager Jen [Marshall], our GM, myself and the cinema department team all get together to throw around ideas. But it’s usually our cinema department that leads the discussions since they know the films a bit better. After that, the chef and the bar manager goes to the drawing board and comes up with ideas for tastings, so we can collectively pick something appropriate. That’s our process on a weekly basis, which, I think, keeps everything really fresh as far as the kitchen and the bar goes. With the cinema department, they try to put on their food and drink hats as well while watching movies and coming up with themes for the menu. I think that creative process is my favorite part of this operation.
When it comes to the food menu, are you very mindful of the fact that people will be eating in the dark?
That was something we discussed when we were coming up with the menu. You have this small table to work with as well. We realized that we needed to focus on food that you can eat with your hands. Also, you might want to show a movie that people might not necessarily want to watch while eating. We played The Human Centipede 2 at midnight and I was like, “Well, there goes all the food orders!” Maybe we made it up with drink orders? We have to think about stuff like that because it’s really important. In general, we have to prep the food and drinks really fast because you can have 92 people sitting down at once. We also have a 60-seat and a 28-seat theater. We stagger the shows a to help the kitchen out, but it’s normally a constant flow of food ordering. That’s the kind of logistical thing we wanted to work out, but I think we’re well beyond things like that now.
What do you make of this new movie theater opening up in Williamsburg?
I’d be lying if I said I want them to open because we’re going to fight over product. For the neighborhood, I think it’s great. We don’t have to go into Manhattan at all anymore to see the kind of movie we want to see. Also, I think think there’s plenty of product to go around. I think it will probably push Nitehawk into more creative directions. I think it will be fine.