In 1896, when VitaScope Hall opened on Canal Street, it was the first movie house in the United States. Nearly 200 neighborhood movie theaters have come and gone in the New Orleans area since then.
Only one of the old neighborhood theaters still remains open: the Prytania on its namesake Uptown street. They’ve all been replaced by a handful of multiplex movie palaces in the suburbs where patrons can choose from as many as 16 theaters under the same roof.
But the neighborhood single-screen movie theater concept has been making a small yet noticeable comeback in recent years. The latest addition to this inventory of independent visual entertainment venues is the Indywood Movie Theater in the 600 block of Elysian Fields Avenue.
The 30-seat Indywood opened in January, helmed by siblings Will and Hayley Sampson. Recent transplants from Colorado, the Sampsons already have built a loyal movie-going following, especially among nearby residents in the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, many of whom lack transportation to the big suburban multiplexes.
Indywood’s specialties are first-run or near-first-run flicks that aren’t being shown at the multiplexes, Hayley Sampson said. Locally shot productions, “art house” and foreign films are also high on the list, along with an occasional film classic.
To stay abreast of their audiences’ tastes and interests, surveys are taken among patrons, Sampson said.
Indywood’s films generally run for one-week spans, with two — occasionally three — films showing concurrently in three evening time slots. Finishing up tonight is French film director Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful” and “Snowpiercer,” a South Korean sci-fi thriller about the last survivors on Earth.
Next week features Lars von Trier’s controversial 2013 film “Nymphomaniac Vol. 1,” starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe, along with “Mood Indigo,” French director Michel Gondry’s adaptation of the novel “Froth on a Daydream” by Boris Vian.
Ironically, screening movies was not Indywood’s original intent.
“We started out as a tech startup,” Sampson said. “My brother studied film at Tulane, and I had a background in neuroscience and was working for a pharmaceutical company.
“When he got the idea for this tech startup, he said, ‘Why don’t you move down here and let’s make it happen.’ And so I did.”
With all the filming going on in New Orleans and the tax credits being offered by the state, “It seemed like a good idea,” Sampson said. But when the pair pitched their startup plan to investors, it failed to generate interest.
“That’s when we decided to open this little theater and show indy films,” Sampson said.
Eventually, when they’re more firmly grounded, the siblings hope to offer tech support, as well as classes in cinematography, screenplay writing and other film-related services.
In spite of the ready availability of Netflix and Redbox rentals, “People still love the theater-going experience,” Sampson said. “We’re trying to bring it back.
"Everything has gone digital, and it’s much cheaper to run than film. So right now might be the opportunity to go back to having a little movie theater in every neighborhood.”
Lee Horvitz, a screenwriter and screenplay consultant from Bywater, gave the experience a thumbs-up.
“They offer a nice range of local to first-run movies and foreign films, and they seem to have intelligent tastes,” Horvitz said.
“The seats are comfortable and both the screen and the sound quality are excellent. And I like the fact that I can just hop on my bike and be there in four minutes.”
Sampson said: “Our real goal is to test what people want to see and move into creating tools for filmmakers to use, including raising money for their films.
“We’re always trying to highlight local film talent, so if anyone has any films they want to screen, they should contact us.”