By Natalie Shaffer
Since March, movie theaters around the world have been shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic. Film releases have been postponed, released on demand, or delayed indefinitely and audiences continue to stream from home. Six months later, as we are finally seeing chains such as AMC Theaters make corporate decisions to reopen, independent movie theaters must answer for themselves where to go from here and what must change.
The Broad Theater of Mid-City reckons with the pandemic optimistically, despite disappointing setbacks in their recovery. After closing in March, the theater attempted to reopen on June 3rd to show vintage films. While this was unsuccessful and prompted the theater to close again, owner, Brian Knighten, shared a somber yet hopeful statement about the future of the classic theater. Amid frustrations with national leadership and treatment of small businesses, he appeared determined that the Broad would safely bounce back, like the nature of the city in which it belongs.
As predicted, the theater officially opened again this month, with some necessary and exciting changes. Tyler Ryan, a general manager at the Broad, shares in the owner’s optimism, even in detailing their new safety protocols that some might consider mundane. Theaters are at 25 percent capacity, seats are marked off and six feet apart, everyone will wear masks and must respect social distancing; the new normal. More than new health protocols, the Broad is also capitalizing on an opportunity catalyzed by the pandemic: the outdoor theater.
“It’s called the Broadside”, Ryan says of the idea borne from COVID-19, describing an empty parking lot they had owned forever but never used. They broke ground on the outdoor theater in August, and it is coming to fruition quickly. He explains that there will be approximately 50 plots of land, spaced apart from each other, that will be available to purchase. Each plot will hold two people, some will hold four, and audiences will enjoy mostly vintage films and grindhouse pictures while social distancing.
Of this innovation, Ryan says the owner anticipated that the outdoor theater would happen somewhere and that as “the movie theater of New Orleans, we should do it first and try to do it better.”.
The question that remains for chains and independent theaters alike is whether or not people are going to show up. According to Ryan, they are (except for the day I called him, which coincided with the first Saints’ game). He attributes the current success to excitement about long-awaited films like “Tenet” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music”, which was filmed here in New Orleans. “These are actual new movies, I think people are just excited to be able to do something,” describing the itch that those who have been social distancing know all too well.
However, more than box-office anticipation and cabin fever, Ryan describes the community of New Orleans as a large factor in the Broad’s recovery. When asked if they ever thought they would have to close permanently, he answered more quickly than before and said “no,” attesting to a long-standing hopefulness. He reflects on Knighten’s statement again, of its proud proclamation of the Broad as a vital part of its neighborhood and city and the resonant faith in New Orleans upon tragedy. To them, the Broad Theater and the city in which it resides are inextricable. “New Orleans as a city has been through a lot before and it is resilient,” he says, solemnly lending the same strength and constitution to the theater.