Ever since the International House went on the market in April, the Lightbox Film Center has been looking for a new home, and now it’s found one — the University of the Arts, which will relocate the venerable hub of foreign-language, independent, and avant-garde film to South Broad Street early next year.
The Lightbox has been offering art film programming and other offbeat goodies at its West Philadelphia address for decades. Its unique niche in the city’s exhibition scene was jeopardized when the International House at 3737 Chestnut St. went up for sale — including its 379 rooms for students and artists, and the Lightbox’s 350-seat Ibrahim Theater.
The Lightbox will move — along with longtime program curator Jesse Pires — to 401 S. Broad St., the old Gershman Y and formerly home to the Jewish International Film Festival, in an existing film exhibition space called the Levitt Auditorium, which will serve as a short-term home for the Lightbox starting in January. University of the Arts is in the process of raising $3.5 million to build a new state-of-the-art (35 mm and digital capacity) theater on another floor in the building, envisioned as the permanent home of the Lightbox. Lightbox programming will continue at the Ibrahim until the end of 2019. When it moves to the Levitt, it will be known officially as the Lightbox Film Center at University of the Arts.
The arrangement is a good fit for the University of the Arts, which has been looking for ways to improve film studies for faculty and students, officials said.
“The more we looked at this, the more it seemed the logical thing. It’s ideal for us, and it’s an opportunity for the Lightbox to keep its public-facing piece, and to grow its education-facing piece,” said David Yager, president of the University of the Arts. UArts and Lightbox were already collaborating on programming, he noted, so the merger is a comfortable one.
The International House was once the home of the Philadelphia Film Festival, since moved to the Film Center, just a few blocks away at 1412 Chestnut, which is also in the midst of an ambitious plan to expand and upgrade its movie exhibition space (the center recently added a digital 4K projector, and is looking to at 70 mm capability as well).
Combined with the new AMC Theater at Market Street Fashion District, coming early in 2020, with eight new screens, including a Dolby Atmos theater, a Center City once underserved by movie screens is now enjoying something of an exhibition renaissance, both in terms of number of screens and in diversity of content.
Yager said the timing of construction of a permanent exhibition space for the Lightbox depends on fundraising. The budget for the project is $3.5 million, although $1.5 million has already been committed from the Hamilton Family Foundation. The new facility will have 175 to 200 seats, and be "housed in the lower level of 401 S. Broad Street, which the university is currently transforming into a comprehensive student center,” UArts said in a statement.
International House director Josh Sevin said once the decision was made to put the building and the property on the market, finding a good home for the Lightbox was an urgent priority.
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“A lot of thought went into how to do that responsibly and appropriately. The Lightbox.... has built a significant following, and as we announced the news, there was a lot of interest and a lot of concern,” Sevin said. The popularity and reputation of the center and its programming, he said, helped make the process easier.
“There was a lot of love and appreciation for this program,” said Sevin, so interest was high. He said UArts can provide Lightbox with “more sustainability and mission alignment” than International House.
Sevin had no further details on the disposition and future of the International House, as plans for the site are contingent on the sale, and negotiations are ongoing.