A Conversation with Chris Boeckmann

Ragtag’s moviepicker lines up films for seasoned cinephiles and reel rookies

Chris Boeckmann saw his first Ragtag Cinema film in eighth grade. The animated feature, Triplets of Belleville, was unlike any movie Boeckmann had seen before, and Ragtag, at the time a one-screen theater on Tenth Street, was unlike any theater he’d been to. He had to come back for more.
“It bent my mind in a lot of different ways,” Boeckmann says. “I feel like Ragtag helped shape the way I am as a human being.” In 2009, many film viewings after Triplets of Belleville, he started volunteering at the theater.

Like Boeckmann, the theater’s executive director, Tracy Lane, sees Ragtag as a unique movie experience. She says the theater shows films that broaden patrons’ perspectives in a community easily engaged and moved to action.

Boeckmann, 24, now shepherds that trend. As the Ragtag movie programmer, he works with head booker Paul Sturtz to handpick the theater’s film schedule. Together, they select the best of the “regular-run” distributed films, group the more independent ones into series and work with nonprofit organizations to show films associated with their missions. And every week, Boeckmann gets the chance to shape local moviegoers just as others did before him.

What makes a film “Ragtag-worthy”?
Most of the movies you’re going to see at Ragtag are films that have screened at a film festival at some point in their life before they played in New York City. New York is kind of the place where everyone starts out. It’s very common for there to be upwards of 20 films opening on a Friday in New York, and not all of those are going to make it to Columbia. We monitor all these film festivals, and we pay attention to the reviews that are coming in. Through that process, a number of films just rise to the top.

What’s the difference between regular-run movies and films in a series?
For these regular-release movies, they’re films that have gotten the weeklong treatment in New York City. They stick around for a week — sometimes multiple weeks. Then, we also have series, which are curating programs that last a month or two. The series are often an example of when the marketplace is completely ignoring a movie that’s great. Sometimes we’re doing something that could be dumb financially because a movie is good. I’m paying attention to all sorts of film festivals and writing down anything that piques my interest. So, I just try to watch as many of those as I can to pick out the ones that strike me as the most essential, and those are the ones that make it into these lineups.

How can you tell which films are popular in an industry that often has a niche audience?
I don’t really care how well it’s doing anywhere else; I’m just trying to pick the highest quality for Ragtag. There’s always a bit of a balance when you’re putting together a series. You’re trying to sustain an audience; you don’t want to lose them by playing the same type of film. One year, I played five films in a row where people died at the end. That was a terrible mistake. It was just so grim. Like I was saying before, you’re just trying to find a really diverse lineup that has different sorts of emotions tied up in it so you’re taking people on a journey.

Once films have been chosen, how do you get them to Ragtag?
We know someone at all of these distributors at this point, and we reach out and have a conversation: “When’s the earliest we can get this movie? What formats are available?” Now, because the films are digital, they are able to just send the files. So it really is just as simple as reaching out to one of the bookers at these companies saying you’d like to play this film.

How do you select films to satisfy both the uninformed and expert moviegoers?
I think what naturally happens is that you have a movie like The Grand Budapest Hotel, which naturally attracts a lot of people because it has some celebrities in it. It sticks around because it keeps making money. We play trailers before (those kinds of films), and hopefully what happens is that you come to The Grand Budapest Hotel, and you see a trailer for We Are The Best, which is a Swedish film. I hope that you come to a movie, and then you’re intrigued enough to try something that’s maybe a little more challenging or more rigorous.

How has your taste in movies changed?
Hopefully, I’ve become more of a thoughtful viewer than I used to be. I don’t love every movie that plays at Ragtag, and I think it would be a problem if I did. I’m not programming for me, I’m programming for a whole community. It’s a really diverse community, and I think it’s important that there’s something here for everyone to like, and maybe something here for everyone to dislike.