The NEW Days of NOLA Cinema: A Q&A

For a film culture beyond “Hollywood South”

There is a renaissance or resurgence of sorts happening with film exhibition in New Orleans. Sure, it may mostly be digital, but screenings are happening quite a bit every week. On top of the long running Zeitgeist and the well programmed Chalmette Movies, younger cinema groups have entered town and opened up shop, showcasing an eclectic and diverse range of movies for a hungry crowd.

What follows is a Q&A session with the runners of two such theaters — Will Sampson of the returning Indywood and Michael Domangue of the soon to open Broad Theater — where I look for their thoughts on local cinema, where it’s going and what they plan to do with it:

  • The documentary No More Joy presented the rise and fall of the neighborhood movie theaters in the city, leaving The Prytania as the sole survivor. While that era probably won’t come back to its fullest, there does seem to be a rekindling of cinema in NOLA. What should we attribute this to?

Will Sampson: In New Orleans, people love to participate in cultural experiences.

Back in the day, when there was a movie theater in every neighborhood showing great films for low ticket prices, the cinema was one of the great bastions of American culture.

The suburban megaplex or the modern day have an inherently uncultured vibe. They’ve choked out all the mom and pop theaters (except for the Pyrtania of course!), and now movie going seems much more consumptive than cultured. At Indywood, we are bringing back cinema by re-branding what it means to go to the movies. People come to Indywood to experience great stories, told on the big screen, in a room full of people who are all along for the ride. Afterward, people linger and talk about the movie.

The megaplex theaters treat their customers as consumers — mindless cattle to be fed the latest Hollywood tentpole movie, sapped of every once of creativity and nuance in order to appeal to the broadest audience possible (read: teenage boys and Chinese people). At Indywood, we assume our viewers are intelligent human beings with thoughts and feeling who want to enjoy a unique variety of cinematic landscapes.

“New Orleans is all about community.”

Cinemas generate a community centered around a cultural experience, so I think it make sense that New Orleans is great place to bring cinema back to life.

Michael Domangue: When I moved back to Louisiana three years ago, I kept telling people that New Orleans had room for about two to three more theaters before reaching some sort of saturation point.

Shotgun Cinema, Indywood, and now The Broad Theater seem to be filling natural holes in the city’s film infrastructure. With all the talk about saving NOLA’s film industry…

“… the real secret to building a film city is building a base of film lovers. The only way to do that is open more theaters.”
  • Media has changed and become so much more accessible since the height of the grand theaters. How can new venues compete with and differentiate from others AND stay alive during the age of Netflix?

Michael Domangue: The death of movie theaters has been predicted since the 1950’s.

Theaters have survived TV, VCR’s, DVD, VOD, and will survive VR and whatever buzzfriendly tech comes out in the next fifty years. We have more choices than ever before but there has yet to be a single technology that can replicate the feeling of seeing a movie with a group of strangers. Star Wars Episode 7 comes out in two months, does anyone have a friend who’s waiting for the Blu-Ray?

“What theaters need to do is stop insulting their audiences.”

We don’t want our pre-shows filled with commercials about the making of commercials (seriously, stop this). Hollywood used to be so capable of convincing us that going to the movies was this magical escape, I think it’s up the individual theaters to bring that magic back.

Will Sampson: I wanted to bring this up in my response to your last question:

Even though Netflix is the biggest competitor for indie movie theaters, in a way I think Netflix is one of the greatest factors contributing to the resurgence of cinema. Netflix has democratized indie film viewing. These days you don’t have to go to film fests to be a cinephile. The vast array of content now online has given rise to whole new generation of people who are engaging with independent cinema — it’s vastly increased our audience.

Now that these people know about indie film, they want to see them on the big screen!

“Going to the movie theater will always be more fun than gorging yourself with films on your couch at home.”
  • The Audubon IMAX just went digital. Do local moviegoers care about real (or reel) film projections? Should they? What options are there in presenting quality digital and film exhibitions nowadays?

Will Sampson: Again, I think digital technology is much more of a boon than a threat to indie cinema.

Though the switch to digital projection put many art house theaters out of business, I predict digital distribution will vastly democratize what films the surviving theaters are able to show. Once we’re able to book films totally online, we’ll be able to show anything we want! Just like people are now able to rent just just about anything they want to see online.

“I think digital technology will also allow for many new theaters to open, because it greatly reduces the economic barriers to opening a cinema.”

I have no shame admitting: At Indywood we screen off of consumer-grade projectors. For a year and a half, we screened off a $700, 1080p DLP projector. And no one — filmmakers and cinephiles included — not a single person has ever complained about the quality of our projection. I think this proves that people come to the cinema to enjoy great story telling with their community, not for the quality of the image.

It’s sad that celluloid film has died, and the past ten years have been a dark age in cinema due to the switch to digital. But we are now entering into a new era when we can take advantage of the economic and technical efficiency of digital projection and distribution.

Michael Domangue: Short answer: No.

Long answer: Film goers have overwhelming shown a lack of care when it comes to film versus digital. Studios love digital and the cost-savings that come from production and distribution. Big theater chains love not having to hire projectionists and deal with bulky reels and projectors. What we need now more than ever is rather than fight transition, which history has always proven to be foolhardy…

“… we need to focus on preserving film prints around the world and making sure that lesser-known titles get proper transfers onto digital formats.”

We have lost over 75% of all silent films ever made. They are gone, never to return. The transition to digital may cause us to lose thousands of films that maybe didn’t make enough profit for a home video release. That’s what scares me, not that Christopher Nolan likes shooting on IMAX stock.

  • Some of the former neighborhood movie theaters have been retrofitted into multidisciplinary centers, showcasing music and plays on top of occasional movies. Do theaters have to diversify to survive? Could the “multi” in multimedia be the end of cinema as we know it?

Michael Domangue: When theaters were 20-screens and lived in the suburbs, there was no need to do anything but show big movies on as many screens as possible.

“When you are building a theater inside a city, you have to adjust to the realities of the location.”
https://www.facebook.com/BroadTheaterNOLA

We do plan at The Broad Theater to have a live element to one of our four screens. We’re not doing this for economic reasons as much as to build us as a destination for events you can’t see anywhere else in the city. NOLA’s comedy scene has seen a huge rise in the last five years and I have had so many comedians come up to me lately and pitch me ideas that they just can’t do in a comedy space.

Will Sampson: I operate a cinema, and people come to Indywood primarily to see movies. We’re certainly open to diversifying what we do — we’ve done comedy nights, puppet shows and dance parties.

“But, meaning no disrespect to multidisciplinary venues, I think “multimedia” is a vague brand — what does that mean?”

Everyone has nostalgia for classic cinema, and Indywood wants to bring that cinema back to life. I see no need to be a “multi” space. If people in our community want to use Indywood for unique multimedia shows, that’s totally cool, but we’re strongest standing under the cinema brand.

  • No matter the circumstances or obstacles, local programmers and organizations keep plugging away and screening film. Is this behavior ultimately quixotic, or will people come if we build them? Can New Orleans be a city for distinct moviegoing?

Will Sampson: I think the New Orleans community is unique in how much we like to congregate and party together.

I know that Indywood makes way more money on special events than a similar theater I know about it my home town. I think the inherent cultural engagement of the New Orleans community makes us unique and provides fertile ground for reinventing classic cinema in the 21st century.

“People keep screening movies, because people love movies. Even as the technology changes, I don’t think the cinema will ever die.”

Michael Domangue: No lie, Quixotic is my favorite word in the English language.

“While I myself do identify with the word, I hardly think showing movies is going the way of the dodo.”

Look at book sales, the introduction of the Kindle didn’t kill hardcover sales, they augmented it. Small theaters near neighborhoods have the ability to increase film attendance. In the year I’ve been helping The Broad Theater, I’ve yet to meet a single person who didn’t want us to build it.

People in New Orleans love a show, and we love to put one on.


Like what you read? Give Bill Arceneaux a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.