Row House Cinema seeks to change how Pittsburghers watch movies

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The brainchild of film buffs and beer aficionados, Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville is changing the way Pittsburgh watches movies.

That’s what owner Brian Mendelssohn says about his new 83-seat, single-screen theater, which opened last Friday at 4115 Butler St. and has its grand opening June 21. 

Row House Cinema’s exterior is still under construction, but the interior is ready for patrons. The smell of popcorn wafts through the building, which offers a retro vibe complete with a “Creature from the Black Lagoon” pinball machine. Soon, the theater also will have a chalkboard advertising various beers and food.

Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville opens

Row House Cinema is a new single-screen neighborhood movie theater in Lawrenceville. (Video by Ye Zhu; 6/17/2014)

Patrons will be be able to buy beer on tap at the concession stand from Atlas Bottle Works, a beer store connected to the theater offering a unique selection of local, craft and international import brews. Concessions also will include conventional options like candy, soda and natural popcorn with real butter. 

“It is a high-profile thing in the city right now and it’s a new-ish concept, being able to drink in the movie theater and being able to buy a six-pack to go from an area that’s not from a bar,” general manager of Atlas Bottle Works Theo Ackerson said. 

Perhaps most unique about Row House Cinema, though, is its choice of movies. Over the course of the three-week-long Grand Opening, the theater will screen “Pulp Fiction,” “Trainspotting,” “Do the Right Thing” and “The Big Lebowski,” among others.

Tickets are $9 general admission, $6 for matinees and on Thursdays. Discounts will be given to Lawrenceville residents, students, children and anyone in costume at the discretion of the concession worker.

Though the theater mainly will be playing older movies, Mr. Mendelssohn also expressed an interest in showing local or student-directed films, and family-oriented films will be shown on Thursdays and Sundays. 

“I want this to be a place that plays literally anything,” he said. “There’s a little bit for everybody.” 

The idea initially came from Mr. Mendelssohn three years ago when he got a sales agreement on the building. He toyed with the idea of building an ice cream shop, hotel, beer store, restaurant and movie theater. It was important to him to promote a sense of community and generate foot traffic in the area.

“This is kind of a very important intersection to the neighborhood and as a resident of this neighborhood, I felt it needed a place that is a destination for entertainment, destination for retail that is beyond what we have already. ... It came out of a needs assessment of just talking to people in the neighborhood and also just my observations from living here as well,” he said.

Plus, he said, Lawrenceville is a “beer desert.”

One of the theater’s first tasks is hosting HUMP!, Dan Savage’s amateur porn festival that celebrates sexual diversity and various pornography. The festival recently was moved from the Hollywood Theater in Dormont after it allegedly elicited complaints, but has found a home at Row House. 

“The HUMP! festival, though controversial, does have a place. It’s looking at different aspects of sex, whether it’s ageism or sexual identification or things of that nature, and this is a film festival that looks at all of these issues. It is something we’re happy to show,” Mr. Mendelssohn said. Conscious of its controversial nature, Row House Cinema will check IDs at the door and warn patrons of the subject matter. 

“Movies have the ability to make people feel good, have the ability to transform you to another world, raise controversial topics and discuss them, and we want to be able to show all kinds of movies,” he said.

The theater won’t be playing any first-run films such as “The Fault in Our Stars” or “22 Jump Street”  for the time being, which is why the theater’s main competition is not commercial theaters, but Netflix and Internet streaming websites.

“But we’re offering them a night out, we’re offering them a comfort level, a different experience, a big screen, and we’re curating it in a way that’s week-long themes,” general manager of Row House Cinema Geoff Sanderson said. These week-long themes could be anything from “Schwarzenegger week” to “David Lynch week.” By offering pre-chosen films and themes, this alleviates the sometimes daunting aspect of choosing just one movie from Netflix to watch. 

“So what we’re doing — combining a retail beer store and a movie theater in an old historic building that didn’t have a movie theater to begin with — is an incredible challenge, and then also creating a business model,” Mr. Mendelssohn said. “Movie theaters are usually large, suburban complexes or small, historic theaters. It is very rare for this style of theater to come into existence so that in itself was a challenge.” 

Row House hopes to cultivate a sense of community. 

“That’s one of the draws to this place. It’s not just a cold, unfeeling theater. There are faces behind the people running it and we want to talk to people coming in our doors,” Mr. Sanderson said. 

“At the end of the day we’re a community-based theater, and that community is Pittsburgh,” Mr. Mendelssohn said. “We’ll only be successful if it’s a good relationship.”

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