Over the past two years, the pressure to show more "boutique" films has increased on Landmark's Canal Place Cinemas and a disparate group of entities, ranging from local filmmakers to fledgling promoters. But the fact remains that getting to see quality cinema in New Orleans is a hit-or-miss affair. Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, long a purveyor of cutting-edge films, has upped the ante with a recent alliance with the New Jersey-based Film Movement -- whose mission statement boasts "A Declaration of Independents." The New Orleans Film Festival, whose fall lineup often provides sole opportunities to see acclaimed films, has targeted movies that can't make Canal Place's schedule. And Jeremy Campbell, an aspiring local filmmaker, has also accepted the challenge with his own scrappy approach.
While there is hope for a planned "replacement" venue for Movie Pitchers courtesy of the folks who run the Prytania and State Palace theaters, for now the burden has fallen on this collection of film fans. Combined, they've done an admirable job. When Canal Place had to bump the critically acclaimed Personal Velocity -- which the theater had advertised with trailers and a movie poster outside -- the Film Festival scooped it up and screened it last month at the Prytania.
The result? "Excellent," replies John Desplas, artistic director for the Film Festival. "In fact, it was almost a sell-out." The Festival, which will screen the 1937 classic Pepe Le Moko this Thursday at the Prytania, also plans to screen Festival highlight (and another Canal Place castoff) Bloody Sunday next month.
Movies like Personal Velocity and Bloody Sunday seem to be victims of Canal Place's recent success. General manager Brian Jones says business was booming at the four-screen theater -- long an oasis for the art-house crowd. Canal Place started the year with the usual spate of belated Oscar-worthy films such as Gosford Park (13 weeks) and Amelie (16 weeks), enjoyed a massive, 19-week run of the indie surprise hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and then saw a holiday boom with Oscar contenders Far From Heaven, The Hours, About Schmidt, Adaptation, The Pianist and Gangs of New York. The theater also premiered Spike Lee's best film in years, 25th Hour.
Few of these films arrive in New Orleans during their national premiere weekend; because of its small market size, New Orleans often won't see some independently made films until months after their release. But following the demise of Movie Pitchers, more movies either land belatedly for a one-week run or not at all. If you blinked, you missed screenings of such critically acclaimed films as The Fast Runner, 24-Hour Party People or the Oscar-nominated El Crimen del Padre Amaro. (By the way, Amaro was the only Best Foreign Language Film nominee to play in New Orleans, and Bowling for Columbine was the only Best Documentary nominee to play here.)
For Canal Place's Brian Jones, it's been a mixed blessing this past year. "Being that we only have four screens, there are a lot more films that we'd like to play that we don't get an opportunity to play," he says. "With the closing of Movie Pitchers, that's affected [the market] the most. You hear about films in The New Yorker, or The New York Times, and [by the time] we can actually have room in the schedule to play it, the buzz has seemingly died down.
"The way the film industry is done, the longer you play a movie, the better percentage you get from the distributor for ticket costs," Jones explains. "We were selling out regularly in the smaller houses. Some of the films opened exclusively here first, which is rare these days; more and more film distributors look for that next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, so they are also opening at some of the bigger theaters. Years ago, a Frida probably wouldn't have opened wide like it did this year. But by the same token, we're the only theater left downtown. So yeah, to an extent, if we'd have eight or 10 screens we could put up some other films."
Among those who have rushed in to fill the void is Zeitgeist's Rene Broussard, who has programmed truly alternative film on his own either at Zeitgeist's wandering home or through Movie Pitchers. The events of Sept. 11 and the indie-film drought have inspired Broussard into a deft juggling act of programming politically charged film series (often showcasing movies critical of the U.S. government's foreign policies) and a recent alliance with Film Movement. The latter move has meant the theatrical release of critically acclaimed movies that nobody else seems able, or willing, to show.
"When Movie Pitchers closed, we were no longer doing theatrical runs, only maybe only one or two a week," says Broussard, who annually attends the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival. "I was doing more music performances than film. I'd gotten fed up with the fickleness of the New Orleans audience. Now I'm going back to my roots of doing these theatrical runs again and hoping they'll be successful, curating these film series like the Arab film series and Film Movement."
Film Movement founder Larry Meistrich conceived the idea after his Shooting Gallery company was bought out by an Internet company that fell in the dot-com bust. Shooting Gallery provided a distribution wing for indie films that weren't picked up by larger companies. By comparison, Film Movement tries to use theatrical screenings of indie films as a tool to promote concurrent DVD releases. Film Movement has "chapters" in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and New Orleans -- by far the smallest market. So if you live in one of those cities and sign up for a year's subscription, you can see a theatrical-released version of a given movie and/or receive the film on DVD immediately afterward.
"We have an agenda to prove that towns like New Orleans are viable art house markets, even if it's not necessarily in the first-run (release) sense," says Meistrich, who has produced or executive produced such indie hits as You Can Count on Me and Sling Blade. "Basically, what we do is create a national release platform by combining the theatrical (release) with the sell-through (DVD sales). So all the pressure for the financial success of the film is not on the theater."
Indeed, local screenings of Film Movement titles such as El Bola and He Died With a Felafel in His Hand have drawn modest crowds, but the groundwork has been laid both for the DVD sales and future Film Movement fare.
The New Orleans Film Festival essentially uses the same approach with its sporadic screenings. The Personal Velocity screening coincided with the DVD release, as does Thursday's screening of Pepe Le Moko, which was recently released by The Criterion Collection.
"Here's the pitch: we'll pick up the rental on the theater, if you'll give us the film to show, and when it comes out in a few weeks or months, [the film's] had exposure in the city -- people are a little more aware of it," Desplas explains. "Otherwise, there's no theatrical release, the film is unknown."
Other underground entities have sensed the opportunity. A year and a half ago, Jeremy Campbell started his ten18 company. While producing and directing films and helping to support other indie filmmakers, Campbell has screened other films here by joining Flicker, which also distributes smaller films, and through his own Film Lounge screenings of films such as Donnie Darko. His choices for venues are curious: The Mother-in-Law Lounge, House of Blues, the Shim Sham Club, Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl and even Zeitgeist.
"Since New Orleans is a music-based city with very few cinema houses, I felt that approaching film shows with the same mentality as a music show would be a good approach," Campbell explains. "So, I went after venues as a film promoter in the same way as a music promoter would. And it's worked well so far.
Girl Gang Productions, which sponsors gay-themed events, got into the act this month by presenting Reel Identities: The New Orleans Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, a four-day event that included a screening of last year's excellent documentary The Cockettes, all at Le Chat Noir.
The specter of Movie Pitchers remains large despite all these efforts. After all, everybody needs a home. Robert Brunet, the booking agent and production director for SPT, LLC -- which runs the Prytania, the State Palace Theater and used to run the now-closed Downtown Joy, says he hopes to replace Movie Pitchers with a similar venue. Brunet says he plans to remodel one of the rooms of the State Palace's upstairs area, called The Core, where music and theater events like Nita and Zita have been held.
This estimated $30,000 renovation, which includes the use of equipment left over from both the Joy and State Palace inventory, could be completed within two months, Brunet says, and could include the same type of schedule Movie Pitchers used to promote. Seating would include a combination of sofas and theater seats, and beer, liquor and food will be served while viewers enjoy the Dolby sound that never graced the Movie Pitchers rooms.
"The idea is to start doing some art films that frankly never see the light of day in New Orleans, or a 'sub-run,'" says Brunet, referring to previously run films that could be picked up after they're done at Canal Place. "Canal Place gets all the big art films, but there's probably 50 to 75 percent more product that never plays in the New Orleans area. I guess the public's gonna dictate the direction we're heading in."