This DIY Space Is the Heart and Soul of Philadelphia's Art Scene

PhilaMOCA hosts films and shows, but it really creates community.

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There’s a building that sits at the south edge of Philadelphia's West Poplar neighborhood, a small, rapidly gentrifying section of the city placed just east of Broad Street and surrounded by equally buzzy, yet haphazardly developed neighborhoods. Within the building is an unassuming room, linoleum floors bordered by white walls distinguished only by rare and absurd movie posters that line its edge, including homages to Twin Peaks and movies like Repo-Man and Cabin Boy. At the front of the room is a stage that stands four feet off the ground with a large black projector screen backing it. These are the hard facts that describe PhilaMOCA, but they fail to do justice to a room that has become a staple of the arts, music, and film scene in Philadelphia. That’s because, as you’ll learn, a venue like PhilaMOCA is made special not by the room itself, but by what goes on within its walls.

Of course, that is what you would experience if you were to walk into PhilaMOCA today and not what you might if you were to walk through its doors any other time over the last 150 years. It may seem unfathomable, especially in a city of constant change like Philadelphia, but the building that houses this community-driven do-it-yourself venue dates back to 1860, a fact prominently displayed above the entrance. While the inside of the building is modest enough, the outside betrays a long and winding history, featuring a facade of thick stone slabs and prominently etched signage welcoming you to “Finney & Son,” a showroom for mausoleums and monuments.

Walk through PhilaMOCA doors in 1870 and you might find Finney himself, ready to offer you a prime deal on an ornate monument to a dearly departed loved one. Jump ahead a hundred years and you will find a dilapidated building in a factory-riddled, forgotten part of the city, one that would inspire a young David Lynch to create the hellscape that is the setting for his breakout film Eraserhead. Happen upon PhilaMOCA in the mid-2000s and you will find a rejuvenated space, a place where cheap rent and abundant real-estate attracts burgeoning creatives. The creative in question, a young DJ and producer named Thomas Wesley Pentz, known professionally as Diplo, purchased the building and used it as a launchpad for his Mad Decent record label, as well as a venue to host many a late night DJ set. Stroll in a few years later and you will find, depending on the night, a bizarro film screening, a local Philly punk show, and everything in between. Which is where the story of the modern PhilaMOCA truly begins.

Eric Bresler first took over as PhilaMOCA manager and programmer back in 2012, graduating from the West Philadelphia house show scene into something he saw as having a ton of promise. “I immediately saw the potential of this being a full-time room,” said Bresler to Thrillist. The first few years of Bresler’s PhilaMOCA were dedicated, in large part, to experimentation, trying to pin down what kind of programming would work within this space and what the community would turn out for. “There were nights where it was completely sold out and other nights where there wasn’t a single paid attendee,” Bresler says with a smile. “It took a lot of time to narrow down what would work within the framework of Philadelphia.”

Bresler found, perhaps ironically, that specificity worked best when it came to programming. He could have chased what was popular, booking the buzziest indie bands and throwing the kind of parties Diplo might have appreciated, but that wouldn’t have been true to what he saw as the room’s full potential. “I always interjected my own interests because I knew this job would be more fun if I enjoyed what was happening,” says Bresler of his overarching programming strategy. “Luckily, that was a good decision, because the like-minded made their way here and I am able to continue programming the stuff that I am really into.”

One of the crown jewels of this booking mindset has been the creation of the Psychotronic Film Society, a collection of Philly’s wackiest cinephiles that has grown exponentially since its inception back in 2016. The term “psychotronic” comes from a Chicago group of the same name started back in the 1980s who themselves borrowed the signifier from a series of fanzines, and eventually a couple of comprehensive glossaries, that highlighted B-movies and genre pictures of the mid-20th century. After clearing the rights to the name, Bresler started what he calls “the only club I have ever been a part of.” They meet twice a month and each film is selected by one of its 80 active members, giving the whole venture a purposefully democratic structure.

“I have been looking forward to and dreading this night for years,” says Charles Perks, the week’s curator and a longtime member of the Psychotronic Film Society. His selection was Scared Stiff, a 1987 Hong Kong comedy that is as absurd as it is enjoyable, the kind of movie that gets laughs both intentional and unintentional and ends to riotous applause. Bresler is proud of the community he has created within the film society, one he sees as completely unlike anything else in Philadelphia. “These are some of the nerdiest film people in the city. Their knowledge is insane and it is intimidating,” he says. “But ultimately, the group is more about getting together and having fun watching movies than anything else.”

Of course, film is just one side of the equation for PhilaMOCA. Andy Nelson is a booking agent working for R5 Productions, a ubiquitous presence within the Philly music scene. Nelson has been the primary agent for PhilaMOCA for years now and a longtime friend of Bresler’s. For him, PhilaMOCA represents something different from many of the venues in the city and he is sure to reflect that when booking bands and musicians within the room. “I love what Eric does on the film and art side of stuff, so I want to make sure the stuff we put in the room fits aesthetically and ideologically,” says Nelson.

He also goes far in praising PhilaMOCA’s status as an all-ages venue, something that is not as common as you might think due to Philadelphia’s antiquated liquor laws. For a long time, there was little middle ground for the young people in the Philadelphia area to see their favorite bands and, in Nelson’s mind, PhilaMOCA provides that essential “welcoming and inclusive environment”—which is why, perhaps, PhilaMOCA has served as a stepping-stone for some of Philadelphia’s most prominent musicians, including acts like Japanese Breakfast and Alex G.

Looking through the upcoming event schedule for PhilaMOCA is one of the more consistently enjoyable things you can still do on Facebook. In early 2023 alone, the venue is set to host a screening of Friday the 13th Part 2, a concert from indie-rocker MJ Lenderman, a tribute to Radiohead from the Paul Green Rock Academy (founder of the original School of Rock), and, of course, a handful of Psychotronic Film Society screenings. And that’s only a fraction of what 2023 has in store for PhilaMOCA. Wander through the venue’s doors on any given night and you will be sure to find something interesting, inspiring, and a hell of a lot of fun. But perhaps more importantly, you will find a welcoming club always looking to add another member, making PhilaMOCA a truly unique place in Philadelphia and beyond.

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Sean Fennell is a contributor to Thrillist.