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The indie and foreign film scene in New Orleans

Matt Brennan on the screening rooms and societies that are creating a new Reel World: New Orleans

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One evening each month, Shotgun Cinema transforms the Marigny Opera House into a movie palace different than most. Dusky light streams through windows set too high to cover with black plastic, and in the place of pews where worshipers once sat during Mass, a large riser lined with folding chairs grows crowded as devotees of another sort file in. Just before Shotgun Cinema co-founders Angela Catalano and Travis Bird introduce April's screening, a four-piece band strikes up "Let's all go to the lobby and get ourselves a treat!" a tune familiar from the Prytania Theatre, eliciting a chuckle from the audience. The old-fashioned melody serves as a reminder that New Orleans' love affair with movies is nearly as old as the medium itself.

  Vitascope Hall, the first permanent cinema in the United States, opened at the corner of Canal Street and Exchange Place in 1896. In the years since, hundreds of movie theaters have opened and closed in the city and surrounding suburbs. Though the heyday of the neighborhood theater is long past, the recent growth of local, independent forms of film exhibition — from newcomers like Shotgun Cinema to expanding offerings from the New Orleans Film Society, now in its 25th year — means the city's cinephiles enjoy a landscape as vibrant as any since the days when Binx Bolling, the protagonist in Walker Percy's 1961 novel, The Moviegoer, walked the streets of the French Quarter dreaming of films.

  "Before I see a movie it is necessary for me to learn something about the theater or the people who operate it to touch base before going inside," Bolling says in the book. Touching base with the current crop of film presenters, frequent collaborators and sometime competitors who set the agenda for what to see, reveals a diversity of venues, business models and approaches to programming commensurate with a booming film culture. More than five decades after Bolling discovered "treasurable memorable moments" on the silver screen, New Orleans remains a city of moviegoers.

Twenty minutes before a weeknight screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, siblings Will and Hayley Sampson are relaxing with Budweiser tallboys outside Indywood, the laundromat-turned-theater they opened on Elysian Fields Avenue in January. Above the entrance, a sign reading "Wash-Dry-Fold" alludes to the 30-seat venue's former life, while the interior, absent a sizable number of ceiling panels, suggests a renovation abandoned midstream. Despite the rawness of the space, the Sampsons envision Indywood as a new paradigm for film distribution and exhibition, well-positioned to benefit from New Orleans' growing reputation as a home for filmmakers and entrepreneurs.

  "This city is about to explode," says Will, a mustachioed livewire with a white guitar. "All of the necessary pieces are here."

  He and Hayley first conceived Indywood as a "crowdfunding for equity" tech startup, offering investors in independent films a slice of the profits — an alternative to Kickstarter's rewards system. With the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission yet to determine regulations for such a process, however, potential backers balked.

  "It kind of went over like a lead balloon," Hayley says. "We basically had the option ... to move and try to make this idea work, or stay here and try to pivot."

Wendeslaus "Wennie" Schulz (left) and Ellis Fortinberry run mainstream films as well as art house releases at Chalmette Movies. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Wendeslaus "Wennie" Schulz (left) and Ellis Fortinberry run mainstream films as well as art house releases at Chalmette Movies.

  The Sampsons plan to expand into the realms of crowdfunding and digital distribution, but for now Indywood screens an eclectic slate of art house hits, Hollywood classics and movies with strong ties to New Orleans. The latter category, according to Hayley, has proved the most popular, with the recent marching band documentary The Whole Gritty City drawing nearly full houses on successive nights. (Indywood, which holds three to five daily showings in the late afternoon and evening, averages five attendees per screening.)

  "It shows that there's a market for local, local cinema," Hayley says. "The only problem with that, though, for the business model, is that there's a limited supply. So it's a good thing and a bad thing."

  Hayley describes the Indywood audience as composed largely of "hipsters and aging hipsters" from the Marigny and Bywater, with few teenagers and families. It's a population fueling interest in independent cinema throughout the city, according to Rene Broussard, founder and director of Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, which opened in 1986.

  "[Hurricane] Katrina brought in a whole new demographic of young, activist-oriented people who came into the city to help rebuild," Broussard says. "It's brought in people who were looking for places like Zeitgeist. ... They're coming from very diverse places all around the world and they want what they had at home, plus all of what's great about living in New Orleans."

  Clint Bowie, programming director of the New Orleans Film Society (NOFS), similarly attributes the society's recent growth in part to an influx of newcomers, including filmmakers, who want access to independent, foreign and documentary movies that are unlikely to appear at large chain theaters. NOFS's membership has increased from 270 to more than 1,200 since 2010, and attendance at its marquee event, the New Orleans Film Festival, has jumped from 8,500 to 22,000 in the same span.

  "I definitely get a sense that there are a lot of young filmmakers who are moving to the city, and I don't know if that's a result of this new 'Hollywood South,' or if it's just that New Orleans is a hip place to come to and hip places draw young artists," Bowie says. "But I have met a lot of recent transplants, especially filmmakers, who are interested in these art house films."

Travis Bird (left) and Angela Catalano transform the Marigny Opera House into a movie theater once a month. - PHOTO BY VINCENT DUCARNE
  • Photo by Vincent Ducarne
  • Travis Bird (left) and Angela Catalano transform the Marigny Opera House into a movie theater once a month.

The desire to recreate the dynamic cinema culture they encountered while working at the Milwaukee Film Festival and EbertFest in Chicago is what motivates Shotgun Cinema's Catalano and Bird.

  "We have access to the skill set and the equipment and the know-how to do this thing that doesn't seem to exist here," says Bird, wearing a purple "Film Is Sexy" T-shirt. "Being excited to go to films is something that, with all respect, is not here as much as it could be."

  Shotgun Cinema, which held its first screening in January, differentiates itself from close neighbor Indywood by putting an emphasis on the technical quality of the presentation and presenting programming influenced by what's happening at nationally renowned venues like New York's Anthology Film Archives. Thus far, the model appears successful. Shotgun Cinema, which is fiscally sponsored by the nonprofit NOFS, averages 45 viewers at its monthly screenings and raised nearly $4,000 during Give NOLA Day May 6.

  The founders of Indywood and Shotgun Cinema describe their respective forays into film presentation as an experiment that tested the hypothesis that moviegoers in the city craved uncommon films and novel settings far removed from the luxe atmosphere of The Theatres at Canal Place or the stadium seating of the suburban multiplexes.

  "It seems like there's an upswell in interest to exhibit," Hayley Sampson says. "I'm really hoping that there's a big enough market to support all of that interest."

Jolene Pinder (left) and Clint Bowie look over submissions to the New Orleans Film Society. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Jolene Pinder (left) and Clint Bowie look over submissions to the New Orleans Film Society.

Rob Brunet, whose family has run the century-old Prytania Theatre since 1996, is sanguine about the jump in new theaters, recognizing that business has always varied from film to film and is subject to seasonal cycles, fads, and competition from television and now video-on-demand. The single-screen theater's mixture of first-run movies, midnight screenings, matinee classics and special events not only helps distinguish the Prytania from its competitors, but also embodies the Brunet family's mission to provide "Hollywood films with an art flair."

  "Showmanship is what it's all about," Brunet says. "If someone's got $10 and decides to go to the movies, whether it's Canal Place, Prytania or some new pop-up theatre, I want them to pick me first. ... That's why it's so important for us to put on the best presentation we can."

  The desire to serve the community of viewers by showing worthy art films, even when they don't pay the rent, is what leads Chalmette Movies proprietors Ellis Fortinberry and Wendeslaus "Wennie" Schulz to operate the cinema, which reopened in July 2010, as a "five-and-a-half-plex." Alongside the mainstream family and action fare that plays on Chalmette's six screens, Fortinberry and Schulz book short runs of rare and locally produced films that draw moviegoers from as far away as Baton Rouge. Counter-programming is the name of the game when it comes to differentiating Chalmette from its competitors for the limited art house crowd.

  "Sometimes when we play a movie, we'll be the only ones in the state to even play the film," Fortinberry says. "Certain films deserve to be played down here."

  Whether New Orleans' cinephile community can sustain the current number of film-related events in an already glutted cultural landscape of festivals, live music and food, remains an open question. Jolene Pinder, executive director of the NOFS, notes that the organization currently enjoys the largest staff, membership base, attendance numbers and programming slate in its history because of time spent cultivating an audience and forging relationships with partners in the film industry.

  "It's not just, 'Build it and they will come,'" Pinder says.

Rob Brunet's famiy has been in the movie screening business for 100 years, and he keeps his Prytania Theatre operating by diversifying his offerings and adding events. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Rob Brunet's famiy has been in the movie screening business for 100 years, and he keeps his Prytania Theatre operating by diversifying his offerings and adding events.

  "You have to know your audience," Bowie adds. "You have to be engaged with an audience in order for your organization to survive. We work so hard to get people to be aware of what we're doing and to come to our screenings."

  To this end, Blake Bertuccelli, a filmmaker and co-founder of the experimental film initiative Cinema Reset, has spearheaded an effort to bring exhibitors together to improve communication with each other — and the general public. One goal is to create a centralized, online platform to aggregate information about cinematic happenings in the city. More broadly, Bertuccelli hopes collaboration and friendly competition will develop appreciation for cinema in New Orleans, thereby stimulating further interest in presenting local films.

  "Everyone in this group has their own aims," Bertuccelli says. "A culture is formed from both the collaboration and the conflict. ... I think it's driving us to a better-defined cinema culture in the city."

  For now, though, optimism reigns and exhibitors and observers see the combination of film industry attention, population growth and audiences' passion for cinema as a boon to all. Actor John Goodman, who recently joined the NOFS as a "Hollywood liasion" for the 25th anniversary of the New Orleans Film Festival, draws an analogy to the city's infusion with music.

  "What I think would be grand, eventually, with the film society, with the film festival, would be to bring things we wouldn't normally see, artists coming in to contribute and getting people out as a community to view these films," he says. "And it opens your eyes up to what's possible cinematically, artistically. ... It feels good to see something new, man. You would never have thought to think of something that way, look at something that way. It's like hearing a new (musical) lick. It's like walking down Frenchmen Street and you hear something and it feels good."

List of Independent Movie Venues

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