THE trend is clear. For the past several years, art-movie theaters - the kind that specialize in revivals, independent films, and other offbeat fare - have been closing their doors, hit with competition from videocassettes and cable television. Even in Manhattan, long considered the mecca of serious moviegoers, such legendary theaters as the Thalia, the New Yorker, and the Regency have turned off their projectors for good.
Where there's a trend that bodes no good, however, there's often a maverick eager to move in precisely the opposite direction. In this case, the maverick is Lincoln Center, an elite cultural institution not usually associated with large quantities of derring-do. The newest of its many handsome auditoriums is the Walter Reade Theater - named for a longtime New York theater entrepreneur and dedicated to film programming of a kind you'll never see at your neighborhood multiplex.
Is it risky to open such a theater when adventurous moviegoing seems to be at a low ebb? Yes, acknowledges Joanne Koch, executive director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and an expert on art-film exhibition.
But the venture has important factors working in its favor, she quickly adds. For one, many filmgoers feel a need for creative programming that reaches further and wider than the usual cable-TV diet of Hollywood comedies and dramas. For another, moviegoers like the viewing of a memorable film to feel like a memorable experience - a sensation the Walter Reade, with its large screen and stylish decor, is guaranteed to provide.
Not that the Walter Reade values "art appreciation" over the sheer fun of moviegoing. "We had a long debate," says Ms. Koch, "over whether to let people bring popcorn and soda into the theater. And the final answer was yes. We knew there was a good economic reason to sell refreshments. But just as important, we decided it would create an informal atmosphere that people like when they see a film, even a serious film."
Koch and her colleagues have been planning the Walter Reade since 1980, when the film society decided to establish a year-round addition to its schedule of limited-duration events, which include the New York Film Festival and an annual New Directors/New Films program. Also on the society's roster of activities is a yearly tribute to a major celebrity of the film world, such as Alfred Hitchcock and Bette Davis.
At first, the Walter Reade was planned as an extension of existing film-society activities, but soon the potential was recognized for what Koch calls "cinematheque" programming, serving up a diversity of films organized into series based on innovative themes, important directors, overlooked periods of film history, and the like. Series already announced range from "Mozart on Film" to "Movies for Kids."
Will the Walter Reade be a smashing success? Just a few weeks after its December debut, it's too early to know for sure. But audiences appear to be growing steadily as moviegoers hear about the theater, learn where it is, and take note of its ambitious and eclectic programming.
If it establishes itself as a cornerstone of this city's movie scene - as Koch and her associates hope and expect - it is likely to serve not only as a showcase for major revivals, but also as a national launching pad for new independent and foreign films that may move to other locations after successful runs here.
It could also set a pattern for new theater development by proving that out-of-the-living-room moviegoing can be stimulating, thought-provoking, and just plain fun.
"We don't want people to just march in and see a movie," says Koch, with a nod to the comfortable lobby that's as much a part of the Walter Reade as its wide screen and its resonant sound system. "We want them to hang out and be convivial, too!"