One word comes to mind when reflecting on an evening at The Broad Theater: streamlined. From the parking outside to the ease of buying tickets and getting to the bar (where there are very reasonably priced drinks and snacks), it’s the most pleasant evening I’ve ever had during a night at the movies. Home to four screens, The Broad Theater provides a finely curated selection of films in the most comfortable viewing environment in New Orleans.
It’s unsurprising then that The Broad attracts people from all over the city. “We get residents from Treme, residents from Esplanade, residents from Mid-City,” says Brian Knighten, the theater’s owner. “We truly pull in people from all parts of town. Families from Gentilly, retired people from Uptown.” And the magnetic nature of The Broad extends beyond the city limits. Along with drawing moviegoers from the North Shore, there’s a couple from Slidell who comes to see a film every Friday night.
The current success of The Broad Theater and its important place in New Orleans cinematic culture comes from a long and involved history. To say that The Broad is a labor of love for Knighten is to both regress into cliché and undersell the persistence, sheer hard work, and length of time it took to make the theater a reality.
Here are the basic elements of The Broad Theater’s Genesis Story: In 2000, Knighten tried to save a theatre that was headed out of business. Although he wasn’t able to do so, the idea of having a community theatre stuck with him, so much so that he bought all the equipment from the theater and maintained it for the next decade and a half. And just as importantly, in our equally digital and litigious day and age, he purchased the rights to the name and the URL for www.thebroadtheater.com.
I suggested to Knighten that the tenacity to keep a website—for a business that didn’t exist—for fifteen years may have shown any financial backers his commitment to the dream of owning and operating a movie theater. He laughed and said, “Well, they definitely would’ve known how serious I was! That’s a $15 dollar a year investment over fifteen years.”
Knighten doesn’t have formal academic or industry training in film, but his passion for the medium is reflected in the five years he spent running the Latin American film library at Tulane University and the fact that he believes “in film and what it can do, how it can bring people together. [And] how film makes people have conversations between people happen—that’s what we are trying to do here.”
Originally constructed in 1924, the first use of the building was as a plumbing and heating business.
While Knighten had the passion, equipment, and website, he did not have the space. He knew that Mid-City was an ideal spot due to the dearth of other cinemas and for the fact that the theater he once tried to save was fairly close by, so he’s extremely happy with the current location. However, the condition of the space was lacking. What is now an elegant and well-designed theatre was an empty warehouse that had been vacant for ten years. Originally constructed in 1924, the first use of the building was as a plumbing and heating business. Over the next 80 years, however, it has been “a million different things and people from the neighborhood knew it as a million different things.” Quite simply, they had to build everything inside.
The Broad Theater’s most grand room, “Screen 3,” was a big space with a dirt floor, trees, and a leaky roof. When wandering through The Broad, it is hard to comprehend what it used to be like and simultaneously understanding the effort and vision it took to complete the transformation from detritus to a sleek and inviting theater. The work is not over, though. Knighten wants The Broad to be a cinema for the community that is responsive to what people want, affordable enough that people can attend once a month (rather than once every three months or six months), and that tries, in terms of the films they screen, to be as much as it can for everyone.
As Knighten says, “we can’t be 100% independent or art house. We show films like The Magnificent Seven, Sully, and Snowden, but we also sneak in things like [the critically acclaimed German film about the man who brought Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to trial] The People vs. Fritz Bauer.”
In a city that has been so closely associated with the production and business of movies over the last decade, The Broad Theater is the perfect place to go and enjoy the final product.