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Downtown Baton Rouge Needs an Independent Cinematheque!

“Downtown Baton Rouge needs an independent cinematheque!” I exclaimed desperately to Emma Chammah. The architect is familiar with these bursts of urban sentiment from her city planning apartment mate. But she agrees, as do most folk who live and work in the city. Sure downtown now has a selection of bars and restaurants, as well as a nascent arts district, planetarium, (small) library, and (scattered) park space. But what we need (in addition to a pharmacy and fresh grocery) is a film theater. And this is why: while Baton Rouge days are gloriously spent outdoors, nighttimes are best spent walking — not driving — between a plethora of options not limited to bars and restaurants. A cinema is key – especially one that is showing great films every night. I grew up with one of these theaters in my hometown of Cincinnati and they are great – and not only for providing a temple to such adolescent initiations as midnight screenings of Rocky Horror.

Despite what cable television, Blockbuster and now Netflix would have us believe, films are social events. It is good to know you’ve just enjoyed an awakened experience watching Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with other sentient, feeling human beings. Cinemas are like imaginary public commons, mental parks and open spaces where we direct our minds to share in empathy a vision that is wholly other to our own and thus — mind expanding! No wonder that for a hundred years films have been married to dinner dates, giving them some center of gravity about which conversations and memories will orbit. For a downtown to live again, it needs a multitude of places for people to enjoy life together. This is the vision of a downtown that is not a tourist destination, but rather a home to people, humans with needs for art, love, food, nighttime breezes, poetry, street music, and serendipitous discovery.

The argument for this sort of revitalization was articulated recently by Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in his 2004 article “The Power of Ten.” Imagine a new art museum building with fascinating things inside, but a dearth of energy about its exterior. Sound familiar? Such was the case the Seattle Art Museum sought to avoid when Kent was asked to look at the plans for their museum’s new downtown building and advise them on how to best generate “public activity” around it. As they brainstormed, Kent was inspired by the concept of scale illustrated so powerfully in the short film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. Instead of one or two attractions meant to draw activity to the space, Kent envisioned an arbitrary ten “focal points” — a bike path, a street vendor, a museum, a restaurant, a bookstore, a cafe, a park and water fountain, a busker, the spectacle of other people enjoying themselves, and public art and architecture (just for example). You can find this sort of environment if you’ve ever enjoyed a stroll through parts of New Orleans or Brooklyn, or even a carnival. The challenge for city planners is often not in finding the attractions but stitching together this fabric among a multitude of public and private interests in a way that doesn’t seem contrived and controlled. Rich urban spaces inevitably develop organically as entrepreneurs use available resources and work around the limitations of the public commons. Sometimes all successful spaces need is interest, attention, and a small push.

In Baton Rouge, the downtown has needed a larger push, greater attention from citizens, entrepreneurs and developers, and top-down interest from the mayor’s office and state government. Ask most Baton Rouge residents about urban planning in their city and they are liable to say, “What planning?” But the truth is that this city has a planning commission, a comprehensive plan (the Horizon Plan), zoning, building, and subdivision ordinances, as well as a rather exciting vision for the revitalization of a downtown grown moribund after a half century of neglect and automobile oriented excess. The plan, succinctly called “Plan Baton Rouge,” was submitted to the city ten years ago by famed architect and town planners, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., the firm of star urban designer Andres Duany. Among other improvements, Duany’s plan called for the creation of a cinema at the corner of Third and Main to act as a commercial anchor for 3rd Street. So what happened?

According to Davis Rhorer, director of the Downtown Development District (DDD), “the Shaw Center happened,” describing it as a development that has been “wildly successful.” After the Shaw Center’s construction and with the mayor’s attention shifted to the much needed improvement of the Baton Rouge riverfront, the idea for a downtown cinema was mostly forgotten — but not entirely so. The Shaw Center has been hosting annual film festivals for the past two years: Red Stick Animation, the Jewish and French Film Fests, and is a regular stop on the Southern Circuit Independent Film Series. Rhorer also points out that the Louisiana Art and Science Museum’s planetarium features a “Space Theater- for showing extra large format motion pictures. New construction on the Shaw Center also includes plans for an outdoor film screening area.

Despite these efforts, Plan BR’s vision for a downtown cinema remains obscure and woefully unrealized. Paige Heurtin, financial director of Manship Theatre who helps to manage the film series, knew of Andres Duany but was unaware of Duany’s call for a cinema on 3rd Street. Nor was John Schneider, developer of the Cyntreniks Group that with Chenevert Architects is restoring the Kress-Levy Building at 3rd and Main. Keen on meeting the needs of the booming film industry, Schneider was pleased to describe plans for a 75 seat theater discussed with the Baton Rouge Film Commission and his realtors, Latter & Blum. Schneider envisions the theater’s primary use as a facility for industry production screenings, corporate training, and for documentaries showing the restoration of the Kress-Levy building and the history of the civil rights era in Baton Rouge. He also contemplates its use for showing second run Hollywood films.

The two facade statues of the Columbia (later Paramount) Theater downtown that grace Rhorer’s office are a constant reminder of the demolition madness that once gripped city developers in the name of progress and surface parking. Rhorer agrees that downtown needs a cinema. Rhorer agrees that downtown needs a cinema. “The suburbs are no place for a theater like Siegen,” Rhorer points out referencing the demise of the closest thing Baton Rouge had to an art theater. Tinseltown Theater, beyond the city’s outskirts, lived just long enough to drive Siegen out of business. Meanwhile, requests to Rave Motion Pictures last fall to show Michael Moore’s Sicko documentary went unfulfilled. Schneider’s plans are unfortunately both tantalizingly vague and too small scale to put much faith in, yet if he can be convinced to engage an independent film distributor such as Landmark Theaters to manage his space, there is hope. Landmark runs the River Oaks Theater in Houston, and cinemas in 24 other cities including Austin, Atlanta, Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. These theaters are integral to the health of their cities’ art districts — and they are profitable and successful theaters as well. They’ve proven the business model for the revival of independent film cinemas in the US. So why not here?

Significantly, most of these cinemas have greater capacity than what Schneider is envisioning, with three or four separate screening rooms for daytime and evening film showings. Could a 75 seat limited single screen cinema survive in today’s market? Many of Landmark Theaters also have the support of a grassroots city politic that adores film, as well as a neighborhood arts district that provides incentives for art businesses. To the advantage of Baton Rouge, the city council passed in March 2008, the creation of its first ever Arts and Entertainment District downtown, an area bound by North Blvd, 4th Street, River Road and Main Street. — a Disneyland main street occupied by chain stores — but Rhorer is optimistic. He argues that 75% of downtown restaurants are locally owned, not chains, and that the DDD is actively working with local entrepreneurs with an overall interest in Downtown’s improvement.

If as Duany envisioned, a theater at 3rd and Main would be the commercial anchor for downtown, it follows that the failure of a poorly conceived second run movie theater would be a serious blight on neighboring businesses. With the Rave theaters and Citiplace already capturing popular audiences, what chance would a downtown theater have? The answer is that once the film is over would one rather submit to the haunted expanse of the suburban parking lot followed by traffic, or rather enjoy the art district’s Power of Ten. Ultimately, the success of an independent cinema, and of downtown’s arts district, will be due to the passionate clamor of the public-at-large. Realtors like Latter & Blum and developers like Schneider need to hear from the people that the most sustainable and beloved use of the spaces they’re constructing and restoring is a well managed independent repertoire cinema.

Note: An earlier version with name misspellings was posted to Sweet Tooth at culturecandy.org

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find my work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support me, please consider donating via my Patreon account.

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