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An Independent Spirit: Dara Messinger Discusses DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema

By Shane Smith

Headshot photograph of Dara Messinger, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing a blue shirt.

Dara Messinger, the director of programming and engagement at DCTV, and the programmer of Firehouse. Image credit: Alex Mallis. Courtesy of Dara Messinger.

As the theatrical market for arthouse and documentary films continues to recover from the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may not seem like the most opportune time to open a new cinema. But timing is what you make of it. Community, resilience, and innovative thinking matter a whole lot too—and those qualities have helped power the successful first year of Firehouse, DCTV’s 67-seat, single-screen cinema for documentary film. 

Opened in late 2022, Firehouse Cinema has become a welcome and welcoming addition to the documentary landscape in New York City. Founded by Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, DCTV has for more than 50 years supported nonfiction storytelling as a tool to catalyze, inform, and empower communities. Firehouse Cinema offers daily screenings of first-run and curated documentaries in DCTV’s iconic decommissioned firehouse building. In the process, Firehouse has further solidified DCTV’s impact on and contribution to the documentary community in the city.

I spoke with Dara Messinger, Firehouse Cinema’s programmer and DCTV’s director of programming and engagement, about the cinema’s first year. In our conversation we covered what’s working in the programming mix; what she’s looking for in working directly with film teams; audience and community responses; the state of documentary; and plans for year two (and beyond). This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


DOCUMENTARY: How did the idea for the cinema come about and what were the goals in opening it?

DARA MESSINGER: The original idea came as part of this grant available to organizations in Lower Manhattan trying to revitalize after 9/11, to have a dedicated space for documentary exhibition and an extension of all the services and resources that we’ve been providing to documentary filmmakers and the community at large. Throughout these many years, it’s been about securing funding, paying attention to the needs of the industry and the community, and since we’re not just a cinema but a multifaceted organization, there were always a lot of moving parts. We opened a little over a year ago now, so we just celebrated our one-year anniversary.

D: How have you drawn audiences and attention to the cinema?

DM: It’s a center by and for documentary filmmakers. I feel that I am a part of a community that I’m serving. We have an incredible member base, and while the pandemic was hard, people were so hungry to come and be in a physical space with people.

Something unique about DCTV, even pre-pandemic, was a space for people to come together. A lot of similar organizations that have since folded didn’t have that. We had parts of this building that weren’t even being used—that’s what became the cinema. And so all these connections and all these people whose films I’ve screened—it’s the same way with a festival, you champion people’s artistry and their work throughout all these years, and I kept my ear out.

D: How are you finding the films you program and how are you engaging with filmmakers? What’s the approach, and are you open to them contacting you directly? 

DM: Going to film festivals, but also just seeing what people are talking about, whether it’s Documentary magazine, Filmmaker magazine, or artists and people that I admire. People are reaching out to me, and then I’m also reaching out to different films. It’s extremely rare for a cinema to be working directly with filmmakers and not just distributors and film buyers and publicists. I take that responsibility seriously, and I try to take great care in doing that.

While DCTV is a very well-respected organization that has been around for over 50 years, we are the new kid in town when it comes to being an exhibitor. New York is more saturated than any other place for arthouse cinemas. And yet at the same time, I still don’t feel this competitive edge because there are still so many films that don’t have a home, and having a dedicated space for documentary just feels like we’re adding another option. A lot of documentarians feel like they have never been able to see their film with such amazing projection and sound and comfortable chairs. So yes, people can reach out to us—I’ve been fielding more inquiries than I imagined. 

D: Given the range and the number of films that you see, what’s your take on the current state and the health of the documentary industry?

DM: At a recent event, a filmmaker shared at the Q&A that after a meeting with a streamer, he was told that you either need to have a story about a murderer, an athlete, or ideally a murdering athlete. In terms of fame and popular culture, formulaic documentary is evolving in ways that I find somewhat scary. Documentary is so much more than that, and I’m really moved by different modes of filmmaking, such as personal, essay, archival. It’s also artistry. It is really moving when I see people trying to push the envelope.

It’s also reassuring that the spirit of independents is stronger than ever, that people are creating new models to get their films made, to get their films seen. For example, during award season, for the For Your Consideration screenings, people will rent the space and have awards voters come in. Four films got together to share that space with one another rather than individually renting. “Come support all of us—a rising tide lifts all boats.”

D: That is another valuable reason for Firehouse Cinema to exist. What kind of films are you looking for, and what experience are you looking to offer both the filmmakers and the audience?

DM: This first year it was important to do new releases, so primarily we’re doing New York theatrical runs. I’m trying to do as many week-long runs as possible. And then there are a lot of needs for filmmakers. We’re also doing straight-up premieres and special events. The more repertory and curated programming and different types of series are going to come in this next year, now that we’ve shown people that yes, we are a cinema, and you can walk down the street and walk in and see a movie. It was really important to establish that.

The business model is just really trying to flex how to fit as much as we can in there. We are not a traditional cinema because we’re not showing Marvel movies, so people aren’t going to come on holidays. Our particular blocks [in Manhattan’s Chinatown] are very busy during weekdays, so maybe people will come on their lunch break, but they won’t come in the evening. A lot of our members live in Queens and Brooklyn. 

D: Can you talk a bit about the programming mix, what you’ve learned about audience tastes and interests over this first year, and how that’s informing your programming going into year two?

DM: Films about local stories, local events, and local people always do really well. We have an incredible publicity team, and we have so much on-the-ground love for the organization that we already have a built-in audience, but the films that do the best are the screenings that have Q&As. We have more Q&As than most cinemas, so it also feels like a festival in that way. And word-of-mouth is still also the best tool; a lot of dedicated outreach has to be done to really try and get people’s attention, especially in a place like New York where there are so many things that you can do. I’m constantly working to not only bring in the same audiences but also expand those audiences and have people come that have never been to DCTV.

D: What do you ideally need and want from a film team when you are programming their film for the cinema?

DM: Film teams that just know what they want and really have clear goals for what it is that they’re doing for exhibition. And film teams that are aware it’s not just about winning a bright, shiny object but who want people to be able to see their film in person or want the film team and the people involved in the film to see their work on the big screen. The awards qualifying system is completely out of reach for many people. And so, while we offer this opportunity, I don’t want to feel like a casino where I’m just like, “Maybe you’ll win.” I want to be having these really niche conversations that I wouldn’t be able to have elsewhere. 

In New York, and in America, we do not fund the arts like other places. And so even though we are a nonprofit, I think sometimes there’s this misunderstanding that we have endless amounts of money to be able to do everything for free. We’re figuring out a business model. We are operating in this thing called capitalism that is very, very real. When film teams understand and respect that and we’re all working together, that feels the best.

D: How has the response been from the documentary community? How are they utilizing the cinema, and how are they showing up and supporting the cinema?

DM: It’s been incredible. There was one week when Debra Granik was moderating two different things, and another week Laura Poitras was. What I’ve heard from several people is that when they come in and they’re in the lobby, “it feels like a reunion here. I just bumped into all these other fellow filmmakers I haven’t seen.” And so many people also come in and will say, “I took a class here 30 years ago.” It’s a very warm feeling to see people recommending us all the time. People are giving back and being there and spreading the word and helping us reach our full potential.

D: When I was running the Hot Docs Cinema, standing at the back of the cinema, seeing the audience respond to a film, the guests on stage, just feeling that connection happening live in the room, was always a beautiful thing. Tell me about some of those highlights for you.

DM: Especially the first few weeks, founder Jon Alpert would sit in the back of the cinema and just light up to see people’s faces when they walked in. I’ve had similar experiences, making sure that I also sit and enjoy films in the cinema, that I’m not just watching them on my laptop to select them and then running around like a chicken without a head the night of. Some of the most memorable things are just hearing people saying, “We couldn’t have done this otherwise” or “This felt so special.” Joonam (2023) has been screening all week [of the interview]. I just adore that film so much, and to see such a personal film resonate with so many people has just been really special. King Coal (2023), I Didn’t See You There (2022)these films have touched so many people.

D: As we look to the future, what’s Firehouse Cinema going to look like five years from now? What do you hope happens for the cinema and the organization?

DM: I hope that we have another screening room, and that we’re able to do even more of what we’re already doing, so filmmakers can come in and do color and sound before they lock and get their DCP made, have their intimate work-in-progress screenings, and then have this incredible run. And our event space will have all new bells and whistles as well. I hope that the business model has settled and that we have figured out what feels the most sustainable for us and that it feels good for the organization and the community. 

In addition to theatrical runs, I hope that we will have a lot more curated programs, guest curators, community groups, and have things be even more accessible to different abilities, different languages. And always have an element of surprise. I don’t want to be doing the same stuff over and over again. That means that you’re always moving, always evolving.

D: One last question, a very important one. How’s your popcorn?

DM: It’s great! A lot of times that’s my dinner when I’m working late, so take it from me: there’s nothing better than popcorn in a movie.

Three people stand with arms outstretched in a dramatically-lit cinema with red seats.
L-R: DCTV Co-Founders Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert with Dara Messinger photographed at Firehouse. Image credit: Arin Sang-Urai. Courtesy of DCTV.

Shane Smith is a documentary consultant and festival and sales strategist. From 2015 to 2023, he was programming and artistic director at Hot Docs, North America’s largest festival and market for documentary film, where he also oversaw the programming of the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.