It may seem incongruous that a one-screen neighborhood movie theater is thriving in the multiplex era. Or that a 93-year-old is still in charge of the place. But the 100-year-old Prytania Theater and its nonagenarian owner, Rene Brunet, seem happy enough as exceptions to the rules.
Since 1996, Brunet and his son Robert have kept the Prytania in business at Prytania and Leontine streets with a canny mix of low-cost, throwback movie selections and cutting-edge technology.
In one sense, it’s a reminder of a time when dozens of similar theaters operated all over New Orleans — and every other U.S. city. Yet in other ways, the Prytania feels right at home in 2014, an era when young college graduates are leaving suburbs for cities and “walkability” has become a watchword of urban development.
In fact, while it may be too soon to declare a revival of the neighborhood theater, at least one would-be imitator may appear soon, with a historic building in the 600 block of North Broad Street slated to be converted into a four-screen theater in the coming months.
Robert Brunet admits he was against his father buying the Prytania, which he reopened in 1997 just a month before the AMC Palace opened in Elmwood with 20 screens.
“We struggled in the beginning,” he said, “but my dad’s passion was the single-screen theater. He grew up in it.”
Which is not to say the Brunets are strictly about nostalgia. In 2006, they invested $850,000 in a major renovation, installing the equipment necessary to show digital movies rather than film. In fact, Brunet claims the Prytania was the first theater in New Orleans to do so.
Industry experts like Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, say there is really no way to continue operating at this point without having made that transition. Studios no longer even provide new movies in any other format.
“Film is dead,” he said. “It’s digital all the way.”
At the same time, the Prytania also can draw audiences with older films, like the run of Robin Williams movies it featured in the wake of the comedian’s recent death. Older selections are less costly for theaters, which can keep a bigger cut of the gross ticket sales; studios take 90 percent on current summer blockbusters.
Older films, combined with new releases and selections with a local flavor, such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” attract an audience that a multiple-screen suburban theater would not, the Prytania’s owners say.
“We cater to our neighborhood,” Brunet said. “Our films are similar to Uptown. It’s a good cross-section.”
And then there are the less-tangible things about the place that let you know you’re in New Orleans. “Here, you can come five minutes late,” he said. “You can walk in with a cocktail, and we’re not going to throw you out. It truly is a neighborhood experience.”
The city’s most famous fictional character, Ignatius J. Reilly, faithfully attended screenings at the Prytania so he could loudly deplore humanity’s slide into the abyss. Today’s patrons may not be as colorful, or as vocal, but they’re every bit as devoted to the place as Reilly was.
“The theater is an old classic,” said Richard Yeadon, 64, of Metairie. “It reminds me of the shows my grandparents and parents and I went to as a kid.”
“We like to support the neighborhood theater,” said Gordon Starling, 59, of Uptown, adding that he likes the ease of walking to the movies. He hardly ever bothers to make the trip to a suburban multiplex, he said.
Economist David Fiorenza, of Villanova School of Business, agreed that for a single-screen theater to make it in the age of the multiplex, it needs a connection to the local neighborhood. He points to baby boomers, especially those without young children, as targets for theaters like the Prytania.
“Baby boomers and empty nesters like walking cities,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, the Prytania will be attracting the next generation of moviegoers as well.
Brunet said he hopes to turn the operation over to his daughter, Page, who already works alongside him.
While they don’t own the property the theater sits on, Brunet said the rent is manageable and the landlord has assured him he can stay as long as he wants.
“It is a passion. If my goal truly was to make money, the theater would be closed,” he said. “It’s in my blood, and I wouldn’t change it for a second.”