As Matt Higgins reports, “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.’
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.’”