The other LA

Two alumni try to raise New Orleans’s profile as a film-going city.

By Ruth E. Kott, AM’07

The other LA
In March the New Orleans Film Society screened King Kong in the New Orleans Museum of Art's courtyard. Almost 1,000 people came to the outdoor showing.

Louisiana ranks third in the nation for film and television production, behind New York and California. David Simon's Treme, the HBO series about post-Katrina New Orleans, is filmed in the city, and so was this year's superhero movie Green Lantern. In 2010, 35 movies were shot there.

But while the city shines in film production, it's trying to catch up in terms of film exhibition. There are only two movie theaters in the city proper: the Prytania Theatre in Uptown, the oldest operating cinema in New Orleans, and the Theatres at Canal Place, with an average of 45 seats in each of its five screening spaces. Many of the city's other cinemas were damaged during Hurricane Katrina and haven't been restored.

Attempting to change the city's film-watching experience is the New Orleans Film Society, headed by executive director Jolene Pinder, AB'01, and program director Clint Bowie, AB'03, with one other full-time staff member, artistic director John Desplas. The film audience in New Orleans isn't nearly as high as in other cities, and Pinder and Bowie think one reason is that there just aren't enough places to go that offer a special viewing experience, something different from simply streaming a movie on a laptop. "Right now," Bowie says, "we don't have a reasonable space we can use to accommodate 1,000 people for an opening-night screening."

Responsible for four major annual festivals, including the New Orleans Film Festival, the society shows films that might not otherwise be screened in the city at the Prytania, the recently rebuilt Chalmette Cinema in a nearby suburb, or at local arts centers. In May, for example, it screened the French film Rubber, about a tire that comes alive and kills people, and the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, about the eccentric New York City fashion photographer. For that event, the society staged a discussion with the organizers of New Orleans Fashion Week.

"This is part of my passion of coming here and working in the era of Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube," Pinder says in an interview at the Creamery, an ice cream shop down the street from the Prytania. She and Bowie were taking a break during May's Film-O-Rama, a weeklong festival of new foreign and independent film at the theater. "A film society can't just show movies and call it a day." They try to offer fresh experiences, showing movies outdoors and organizing drive-in viewings. In March, for example, the society hosted a screening of King Kong in the New Orleans Museum of Art's courtyard. About 980 people showed up.

Pinder and Bowie hope to create memories through film. Bowie, who worked as a journalist in Portland, Oregon, and for the Portland International Film Festival before coming to New Orleans in early 2010, incubated his love of film while studying in Paris as a U of C third-year. Unhappy with the program he'd chosen and just generally "miserable," he found himself escaping to some small theaters near his apartment. "I ended up in there all the time," he says, "and just watched movies nonstop." Returning to the U of C for his fourth year, he immersed himself in Doc Films, attending screenings there three or four times a week.

Pinder's path to film, meanwhile, was the result of an epiphany, during an unplanned viewing of Tupperware!, a 2004 documentary on the history of the plastic container made for PBS's American Experience series. At the time she was working at a nonprofit in Boston. While visiting the city's Museum of Fine Arts with a friend, "I just decided on a whim to go see a movie there." She sat by herself in the top row and stayed for the Q&A afterward with the director and producer. The film, she says, "takes something mundane and makes it incredibly interesting." She knew she wanted to work in film.

After studying filmmaking at the University of Florida's Documentary Institute—winning a Student Emmy for her documentary Bismillah, about a Muslim woman running for political office in Minnesota—Pinder spent four years at New York City—based nonprofit Arts Engine, where she was an associate producer and directed its Media That Matters film festival. There she also coproduced a documentary about the asexual community, (A)sexual, which premiered in June at the San Francisco Frameline LGBT Film Festival.

Although Pinder and Bowie weren't close friends at Chicago, they had mutual friends, and the two kept in touch over Facebook after graduating. When jurors backed out of the 2010 New Orleans Film Festival, Bowie invited Pinder to judge the documentary-film category. "We needed someone who could watch a lot of movies, nine or ten, in two weeks," says Bowie. "And watch them with a critical eye."

Pinder accepted, and in January 2011 she joined the society full time as executive director. The post had been empty for two years, so she's spent most of her time on infrastructure building and grant writing. "I'm passionate about seeing the film society get to the place where I think we need to be," she says, which includes raising its profile to bring in people from all over the country.

They also hope to raise the number of local filmmakers featured in the festivals. "We're strategizing on how to build an indigenous film culture," says Pinder. The society has partnered with local arts and film organizations to figure out how to showcase more Louisiana-made movies. For the past few years, for example, they've instituted a new category for local filmmakers. They've also led panels how to get involved in the Louisiana film industry generally: "People see all these movie sets, but sometimes they don't know where to go for casting if they're interested in acting," says Bowie. "We would like to become a point person for that."


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