Brian Knighten stands at the center of the bar and lounge area in the lobby of his soon-to-open Broad Theater, a four-screen movie palace in the heart of Mid-City. It's mid-February, and The Broad is about a week away from the planned date for its long-delayed opening. Surrounding Knighten are ladders, power tools, planks of unfinished wood and a layer of sawdust covering the room that looks like you could measure it with a yardstick.
Workers have just tried to move a stone slab intended for the top of the theater's wraparound bar, only to see it split in two. "It wasn't the one I ordered, anyway," Knighten says with the laugh of a man about to see a long-deferred dream spring to life.
That sense of humor has served Knighten well during the nearly two-year effort to build The Broad. A few days after the slab-splitting incident, permit-related issues forced another delay of the theater's planned opening — scheduled for March 4 as Gambit went to press. But the result, Knighten hopes, will be a modern take on the old-fashioned, independent and community- focused movie theater.
The Broad's 12,000-square-foot space will feature four theaters with 65 to 125 seats each, all with the latest technologies for picture and sound and stadium seating for optimal sight lines. Eight beers and four wines on tap will be available in the lobby, and a food menu beyond popcorn and candy will be added in the weeks ahead. Tickets at the Broad will cost $10, which is 12 percent to 20 percent less than regular prices at other large, first-run theaters in the area — and a bargain compared to 3-D and IMAX screenings offered elsewhere.
Knighten and general manager Brian Jones plan to tie all this together with an emphasis on presenting independent, foreign and regionally made films, which until now have found a local audience that's engaged and passionate but limited in size. The Broad aims to expand that market, enhance appreciation for art-house cinema in New Orleans and establish a new, centrally located hub for film culture.
"Movie theaters in general don't make a lot of money," Knighten says. "But I be-lieve in the power of film to build community and start conversations. Ultimately, it's about building this place for the city of New Orleans."
Knighten's road to establishing The Broad Theater began in 1999 when he was 23 years old. While having dinner at Katie's Restaurant & Bar, he overheard a couple at the next table talking about how Mid-City's Movie Pitchers theater was about to close. "It had been just surviving, not bringing in a lot of income," Knighten recalls. "But it was very well-loved by everyone, including myself."
The next day, Knighten went to see the owner of Movie Pitchers, who said he was losing his lease because the property was being sold to a grocery chain. But he offered to let Knighten take over Movie Pitchers if he found a way to keep it open. Knighten fought the sale of the property in civil court but lost, and the building was torn down. "I ended up getting chairs, projectors — a lot of old, bad equipment, and I stored it for 10 years," Knighten says.
Knighten was born in Baton Rouge and moved to the West Bank with his family at age 12. He studied at the University of New Orleans and worked in Tulane University's Latin American Studies department writing curriculum for teacher training and managing a film library. He left Tulane to start his own distribution company for Latin American films and later established a renovation and construction business. But he maintained his interest in building an independent movie theater in New Orleans.
Knighten looked for an ideal theater space "hardcore for about five years, then sporadically for 10 more years," he says. He moved to Baltimore after Hurricane Katrina but returned to New Orleans a year later with a neighborhood theater still on his mind. "It's very hard to find a large space in New Orleans with parking and everything else you need for a movie theater at an affordable price," he says. "Everything kind of came together when I found this place."
The brick and stucco building at 636 N. Broad St. is one of very few examples of Spanish Mission style architecture in New Orleans. It was built in 1923 and sold the following year to plumbing, heating and ventilation contractors Sciambra & Masino, whose name is still on the building. It has served as home to a charity bingo hall, a boat shop, a plumbing supply company and the House of Champions boxing gym, among other businesses. It was in poor condition when Knighten took over.
"Abandoned, vacant, blighted," he says. "It wasn't falling apart but there was a lot of termite damage to deal with. And there had been some bad construction decisions, more aesthetic than architectural. But there was really nothing in here. None of these [interior] walls was here."
Knighten says it has been a long, slow building process. He handled the renovation himself and announced a spring 2015 opening. "It was a big, expensive project and I was over-optimistic," Knighten says. But the main reason for the delays was his evolving vision for the space.
The original plan was to open The Broad with two screens and add two more later, "but the momentum and the need were there to build out screens three and four — and to make number four a 125-person, festival-size screening room," Knighten says, even though that part of the building was "basically a dirt floor" when he acquired it. "I decided I wanted to say, 'This is what we are' from the start," he says, "instead of growing it little by little."
I believe in the power of film to build community and start conversations. Ultimately, it's about building this place for the city of New Orleans — Brian Knighten, owner of the Broad Theater
There was another reason to live with the delays and open with four screens: to make an impression on film distributors, who ultimately choose where to show their films. "If I had just two screens and turned great numbers, then one of the national chains might have said, 'Wow, we should build a theater over there too,'" Knighten says. "They still might, but at least we'll have a foot down in the neighborhood and something to back it up with."
Knighten found another essential piece of The Broad Theater puzzle when he hired general manager Brian Jones in November 2015. Jones has a long history as a manager for New Orleans movie houses, including the Prytania Theater, the Uptown Square Cinema (which closed in 1998) and The Theatres at Canal Place. He shares Knighten's love for art-house cinema and his belief in film's potential as a positive force in the community.
"The first question Brian asked me was, 'Why would you leave a steady job for this?'" says Jones, who had been working as general manager of The Grand Theatres in Slidell. "Part of it was I wanted to get back to the city, but these are the movies I want to show. This is where I came from."
As Knighten tells it, Jones couldn't hide his enthusiasm for The Broad. "He quit his other job without really confirming that he had the job here," Knighten says. "He just said, 'I'll be there tomorrow!' It's been great. I tend to think out in the clouds about what we can do. He has the ability to bring it back down and be a little more realistic."
The first thing Knighten and Jones want to do is engage local audiences with an appealing mix of movies. Newly released independent, foreign and regional films will be balanced by the best of Hollywood's latest along with cult classics and arthouse favorites. Programming "is very fluid right now," Jones says. "We're going to try a bunch of different things and see what works. But we'll always have at least one foreign film on screen."
It's hard to imagine a better test for the tastes of local filmgoers than The Broad's scheduled opening slate of films. Included will be new Hollywood "war comedy" Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which stars Tina Fey and is based on journalist Kim Barker's memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Mustang and A War, two of this year's nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award; and a double feature of cult favorites Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest, which are a nod to the resurgence of Star Wars as a cultural juggernaut.
Two things the Broad will not be offering are 3-D — "I hate 3-D," Knighten says — and commercials before feature presentations. "I never considered it," he says.
The Broad also is interested in other types of programming. Theater Two was designed with a small stage in front of the screen and a bar at the back of the room. The setup lends itself to talks, panel discussions and live performances of scores for silent movies. Knighten hopes The Broad will serve as a home to outside film festivals and "would love to get a regular comedy troupe in here like Movie Pitchers had."
Knighten envisions connecting with local filmmakers through screenings of work-in-progress films and student projects along with something he's calling a Nonprofit Spotlight. "We might have one or two nights a month where we partner with local nonprofits and give back a percentage," Knighten says. He also has an idea to help develop and present short film pieces about local nonprofits before regular screenings.
The Broad Theater is not the only local film house presenting arthouse cinema and building community connections. Indywood Theater plans to reopen in late March or early April with a new 5,000-square-foot, two-screen facility in Bywater and a strong vision for supporting local culture and presenting imaginative fare. Central City's Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center has offered its own take on indie film for the last three decades, including at Movie Pitchers. The Prytania Theatre and Chalmette Movies regularly exhibit foreign and independent films, and the 27-year-old New Orleans Film Society and upstart Shotgun Cinema present screenings and festivals.
Knighten believes The Broad's location at the center of the bur- geoning Broad Street commercial corridor represents a unique opportunity to bring film culture to the widest audience yet. "I feel like Mid-City is truly representative of all types of people in New Orleans," he says. "There may be other spaces in the city as open and welcoming as we'd like to be, but we have the unique potential to represent the entire city.
"Hopefully we'll appeal to everyone."
— Ken Korman is Gambit's movie critic.