The Broad Theater closes for second time during COVID pandemic, aims to reopen with outdoor cinema

‘Movies are supposed to be enjoyed in the dark, in a big room’

Brian Knighten, owner of The Broad Theater, organized the countertops of the concession stand in an empty lobby. The theater closed days ago – for the second time since the COVID pandemic began.

“Movies are supposed to be enjoyed in the dark, in a big room anonymously,” he said at one of the empty tables in the lobby, which also substitutes as a full-service bar for moviegoers.

Brian Knighten, owner of The Broad Theater, organizes the concession counter of an empty lobby after he was forced to close his theater’s doors for the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Photo by Clint Durrett)

Movie posters for “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Tenet” line the hallways of the empty theater. The movies were intended to open this summer, but have been delayed. The popcorn machine sits atop the ramp that leads to the axis of several theaters in the building.

Knighten put the machine there to avoid floodwaters. He opened the theater in 2016. The Broad Theater, he said, is an interesting building that fit the checkboxes in location, space and, in a condensely-packed city like New Orleans, parking.

“The one box I didn’t anticipate was the flood box. When I got the building, I was told that it flooded, but the guy said the building only flooded once in the last couple of years,” he said.

“It’s terrible that it keeps happening … It’s just something we deal with.”

That was in 2016. Since then, the building has flooded numerous times, forcing its closure as crews had to cleanse the area of the soaked floors of the theaters along with the area around the concession stand.

The popcorn machine was placed atop the ramp at the axis of The Broad Theater’s hallway to avoid floodwaters. (Photo by Clint Durrett)

“At this point, it’s an accepted fate,” he said. “At this point, the building is flood-proof. We can take in the water.” Pointing to the concession counter, he said, “This is all concrete and PVC. The walls are made of steel studs. So at this point, we can hose it off and do a quick turnaround.”

The repeated flooding hasn’t broken his spirits in operating one of the few independent movie theaters in New Orleans.

“It’s a pain in the butt,” Knighten said, referring to the flooding. “It’s terrible that it keeps happening … It’s just something we deal with.”

Another box Knighten wasn’t expecting to check off was a worldwide pandemic that would keep people from enjoying the communal experience of cinema.

“It doesn’t feel right to close.”

COVID-19 has forced a majority of businesses to temporarily shut its doors – bars, restaurants, bakeries – none are immune, including theaters. Knighten closed earlier this year and went to promoting virtual screenings of movies to help keep his businesses thriving. The virtual screenings, in conjunction with gift card sales and movie distributors sharing in the virtual ticket sales, helped keep The Broad Theater operating and employees paid.

“When we first decided to close, I thought and said to my staff that we would close until March. Once we closed and my personal depression set in, I said, ‘It doesn’t feel right to close.’ We have the money to get us through and we have some customers that are coming to the doors and sending emails.”

Brian Knighten, of The Broad Theater, stands behind the counter of his concession stand in an empty lobby after he was forced to close his theater’s doors for the second time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Knighten said that his original prognosis was for six-to-seven months of closure. The coronavirus pandemic has him thinking about how to reshape the theater – how to adjust. September is his target date to reopen. New ideas and two new movies, he believes, will bring New Orleanians together to watch.

“’’Tenet’ is coming out September 3, which is a big film. ‘Bill & Ted 3’, which was filmed in New Orleans is also pretty much guaranteed to come out September 3,” he said. “It takes a special event to bring people to the theater.”

Owner of The Broad Theater, Brian Knighten, and his son, sit in a theater screening room and watch movie trailers for would-be summer releases, like “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” (Photo by Clint Durrett)

“If we take this time off, adjusting some things, I think that will help.”

In addition to the movies that will draw people to the theater, Knighten said he is learning how to make the entire concept appealing in a COVID age.

“If we take this time off, adjusting some things, I think that will help,” he said. “Maybe something with assigned seating – something with private parties as an option. Maybe add some filtration systems (to the air).”

New Orleans is currently allowing dine-in at restaurants. Meanwhile, bars were forced to close and no to-go drinks are allowed. Inside The Broad Theater, alcohol is served and regular concessions are stocked, but it hasn’t drawn a crowd in comparison to restaurants.

“There are some ways we can … help ease people’s anxiety,” he said. “People don’t seem to have much anxiety when sitting in a restaurant for two hours. By state decree, we can be at 50-percent capacity. But we’re capped at 20-percent on our sales. There’s a lot of room.”

The popcorn machine was placed atop the ramp at the axis of The Broad Theater’s hallway to avoid floodwaters. (Photo by Clint Durrett)

While Knighten takes time to finesse reopening for the public, he has taken steps to redefine The Broad Theater experience – including opening a new outdoor theater next to its brick-and-mortar location.

“I’m building, and got the approval, to build an outdoor movie screen next door,” he said. “That’s why we’re really eyeing September. We’ll have that open. We’ll open up the inside and have both locations. For example, we’ll show ‘Tenet’ inside and another film outside and have fresh popcorn being made inside. It should be cool, and I’m excited.”