The Real Movie Experience
Back in the day, many New Orleans neighborhoods boasted a nearby movie theater, each with its own unique character. But as the big chains moved in and established their glitzy multi-plexes, and television kept many people entertained at home, these local treasures gradually disappeared.
Swimming against this tide is Brian Knighten, owner of the Broad Theater in Mid-City. Opened in March 2016, the Broad Theater recreates that more personal, intimate movie experience in the heart of New Orleans, while also providing a friendly neighborhood gathering spot with a full bar. However, it still faces challenges old and new.
Knighten was originally inspired to go into the theater business by the old Movie Pitchers, a previous Mid-City version of local film houses. “I heard people talking about Movie Pitchers closing, and I tried to keep it open,” he recalled, “but no one was going to give a 23-year-old kid half a million dollars to do it.”
Knighten abandoned the project but remained intrigued by the idea. He continued to look for the right location, and found it in a crumbling former boxing gym on Broad Street right off the Lafitte Greenway. As a contractor and real estate developer in his real life, he did most of the refurbishing of the building himself over the course of two years.
Knighten sees a viable niche for the Broad. “Where we physically sit in the city, we touch a lot of different neighborhoods. We’re a community theater, and we try to reach the community in as many ways as possible. We do special screenings with community partners. We try to reach as many of our potential customers as we can – we have a different clientele on Tuesday afternoon versus Friday night.”
As an illustration of this, one popular program at the Broad is the Thursday morning “BYOB”, which in this case stands for Bring Your Own Baby. “It’s a way for new parents to get out and do something halfway normal,” Knighten explained. “We keep the volume down and the lights up, and we have a menu of food that can be delivered to your seat.”
Other examples include having special film festivals, and screening forgotten movie gems from the past. People can even have private events and choose the films they want to see. These range from kid and adult birthdays to bachelor parties, along with a variety of nonprofit fundraisers.
In general, Knighten focuses on that mom and pop feel. “We have a small staff that really gets to know our customers,” he said.
The personal touch also applies to selecting the films shown at the Broad. “Our management team picks the movies as a collective,” noted Knighten. “Three out of our four managers have a really strong background in film. While we work with a partner in Los Angeles to decide which of the major studio productions we want to screen, we handle the more independent films ourselves.”
The Broad Theater was holding its own when COVID-19 came along. In Knighten’s word, the pandemic has been “disastrous”.
“People seem to have movie-going amnesia,” he said. “They’ve gotten used to watching movies at home. But to me, the point is to get engulfed in a film, see it on a big screen in a dark room, experience and react to it with other people.”
Indeed, catching all the nuances of a fine acting performance, or experiencing the richness of an elaborate scene setting, is virtually impossible on a home screen, even if they are bigger than ever.
The other problem is lingering health concerns, which Knighten feels are misplaced. “People go to restaurants and bars, with nearby tables, wait staff running around, and everyone taking their masks off to eat and talk. At the Theater, no one’s talking, your mask can stay on, we have eighteen-foot ceilings, and a huge air-conditioning system that keeps the air fresh.”
Despite the challenges, which he hopes begin receding soon, Knighten remains positive about his labor of love. “It’s still fun,” he said. “I still love movies, and I still love theaters.”